de Champaigne, Philippe, 1602-1674; The Dream of Saint Joseph

The Dream of St. Joseph, de Champaigne 1643, The National Gallery, London, UK.

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[The angel said] “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”                 Matthew 1:20.

The events which followed the Annunciation, the conception of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, were fast and furious. Mary was unmarried, so that would have been as serious a blow to her chances of a normal life as it would have been up to, say, the 1950s. Today not so much, but we now live in a completely different world. Her intended husband Joseph on learning that she was pregnant immediately decided to end the marriage, which was quite acceptable in his Jewish society. He was going to do this “quietly”, as the gospel says, to avoid as much pain and disgrace as possible, until today’s dramatic event took place, the first of two dreams. The other was the instruction to move to Egypt after Jesus’ birth to avoid the slaughter of the innocents at the command of King Herod. The unique truth the angel revealed to him today was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in today’s first reading, that a virgin shall conceive and bear a son (though the word “virgin” has been a point of contention among theologians; the original Hebrew text can be translated as “young woman” whereas the Septuagint, or Greek translation of the Old Testament, has “virgin”. For a fuller explanation of that, click here). For us Christians, this is a crucial point. If we believe Jesus was totally human and also Son of God, then conception through the power of the Holy Spirit in a young virgin woman makes perfect sense and unique in history and had to take place before any marriage consummation. Poor Joseph, on the other hand, had to figure out the revelation which came in a dream; more power to him that he accepted that revelation and acted on it. One final note. The angel told Joseph to call the child Jesus. There is no such name in Hebrew. It is all but certain that the intended name was Joshua, Y’shua, (ג’ושוע in Hebrew). There is no “j” or “sh” sound in Greek, the language of the New Testament, and the closest Greek could get to that sound is Ιησούς, or “Yaysous”, close to the present Spanish pronunciation. So had you shouted out “Jesus” or “Ιησούς” to the Lord, he would not have turned round.  Shout “Y’shua” and he would!

This being Advent, the time of waiting for the arrival of the Lord, perhaps all this theological chatter might be a point of reflection. I was once at a 4-day retreat with schoolboys many years ago. Parents were asked to write a love letter to their son. One such read “When I was carrying you, I couldn’t wait to meet you and get to know you and love you…” Perhaps it would be an idea for each of us to think that of the impending arrival of the Lord. If you did not know his name was Y’shua, then that sentiment expressed to that woman’s son (who was overwhelmed by it) could easily be applied to the Christmas event and to the arrival of the new baby. How can each of us meet him, welcome him and love him as a new arrival in our hearts as if for the first time?


The Newborn Babe.

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John the Baptist Baptizes Jesus, Saint John The Baptist Coptic Orthodox Church, Vaudreuil-Dorion, Québec, Canada.

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[Jesus said] “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk….”                 Matthew 11:4-5

As with the readings last week, the figure of John the Baptist dominates today’s Scripture passages. But today’s nickname, if you like, is “Gaudete Sunday” rendered as “Rejoice Sunday”. It means that a moment of optimism and joy breaks out into the world of purple anticipation that is the season of Advent. Today the liturgical color is the brighter rose (hence the rose candle in the Advent wreath). John had asked whether Jesus is The One, heralded for centuries by the prophets.  Jesus recites his works of mercy, which we would call miracles, which John would instantly recognize as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. These are listed in today’s first reading. That must have produced joy in John’s heart. Jesus then magnifies John’s ministry as a further example of prophetic fulfillment, again from Isaiah but also from Malachi. So those who heard him would also be filled with joy. The second reading, from the letter of James, is also encouraging, that we should not lose patience, that we should “make our hearts firm”

John the Baptist is a very interesting character in Scripture. Note that Jesus says today, “….there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This seems contradictory, and there have been many attempts at explaining it. The only one that seems plausible to me is the traditional understanding as John being the last prophet of the Old Testament. He clearly echoes Isaiah and Malachi, yet he actually initiates the Messiah’s calling at Jesus’ baptism. At that moment Jesus received his identity (the Son of God) and his vocation (on being anointed by the Holy Spirit, he becomes the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ). At that moment John’s life’s work is complete. He dies before Christ’s mission is complete, hence cannot be called a witness to the entire New Testament, therefore “least in the kingdom of heaven”. Nevertheless he is a towering figure in Scripture, consequently “none greater than he”.

The impact John had in his time was immense. There is even a group of believers in him called the Mandaeans. For them, Jesus is not the Messiah, but John is their chief and last prophet. Among other things, they must marry within their own circle, and never admit converts. Because of a great deal of persecution in their native Iraq, many have been dispersed throughout the world, with their total number declining, currently about 70,000 worldwide. They date right back to at least the time of John.

So is there a message for us after this complicated, even agonized, explication? I said last week that each of us should be aware of John’s attitude and self-awareness. He considered his mission to wait for the arrival of the Messiah, recognize him, and then allow him to take center stage, and for him, John, to step back. So today I say the same thing; we should be prepared to accept others into our lives, accept their strengths, allow them to grow, even with our encouragement, so that they are free, confident and growth-filled. In that way, I think Christ and John should coalesce within us as we accept others as God’s children, allowing their strengths and talents to grow and blossom, as we too fulfill our own vocation, to be Christ to the world. In that way we have two great models to emulate, and hence be all the stronger. That seems to be a good Advent lesson!


Preaching of John the Baptist, Ghirlandaio 1488, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence Italy.

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St. John the Baptist Baptizes the People, Poussin 1635, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

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John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”                       Matthew 3:1.

The figure of St. John the Baptist towers over the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He was, apparently, hugely popular with the people, who came out from the civilized suburbs of Jerusalem to hear him in the wilds of the desert just outside. He baptized them in the waters of the Jordan, he proclaimed the coming of the Lord, stating that he was not worthy to carry his sandals. John 3:30 even records John as saying, “He must become greater; I must become less.” So it would seem that John’s role was to prepare the way of the Lord, as Isaiah 40:43 had proclaimed. He was, in other words, the fulfillment the prophecy of Isaiah.

Let us take a look at this strange man who dressed strangely and ate weirdly. Although very successful at what he did, he said he was doing it for another, one who was greater than he. He was not at all tempted to put himself first, even stating when people asked who he was, by answering (rather oddly) “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20). Indeed, he was fulfilling his vocation to the utmost, to be that voice proclaiming in the wilderness the coming of the Lord.

In 1984 a very grand movie called Amadeus appeared. It charted the career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whom many would proclaim the greatest composer ever. He was, however, a kind of nobody at the start of his career, running away from his employer, the very powerful Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg in Austria for the bright lights of the imperial capital of Vienna. Now the movie plays tricks with the actual history of Mozart in Vienna, but the “amended” version serves the point I will attempt to make. Mozart is brought to the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, Joseph II who considered himself to be an enlightened ruler, and consequently supported the arts. In the movie, almost everyone at the imperial court considered Mozart an arrogant and annoying upstart with little talent. The imperial court composer, Antonio Salieri, was the exception and immediately recognized the young man’s genius and was overcome with jealousy, so much so that he plotted Mozart’s destruction. Although this was not historically true, it makes for great drama. Playing on Mozart’s ambition and arrogance, he slowly drives the younger man to despair and ruin leading to his premature death at age 35. The film opens with Salieri attempting suicide and ending up in a madhouse, where he is attended by a young priest, who offers to hear his confession. The body of the film is the flashback based on this premise. At the end of the film, we return to the non-repentant Salieri and the young priest, devastated by what he has just heard, who says nothing. And here lies my message for today’s readings.

John the Baptist is the living incarnation of the 10th commandment, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. I understand goods to include our neighbor’s success in the world, both in terms of material possessions and personal talent and growth and professional greatness. John was the very first to recognize Jesus as The One, the Messiah. He proclaimed him as such, said now Jesus had appeared, he, John, must grow less; Jesus was to take over, as it were, from him. That is what the priest should have told Salieri. It was Salieri’s Christian duty to support Mozart, to encourage him, to guide him, because he was the only one who understood the greatness of the younger man, and the prodigious talent granted him by God. But he did the opposite. He destroyed him.

So my message is, each of us is called to be a type of John the Baptist. If ever we encounter another person in need, and we are in a position to help, then it is our Christian duty to do so, even if we might recognize in the other greater talent and promise. As a teacher for years, it was my duty whenever I discovered a student way more intelligent than me, to ensure that that person was given full opportunity to grow and develop as far as I could assist. It was my job to do that for all my students, but I tried not to become a Salieri, (who was not like that in real life) if I encountered a super-intelligent pupil. One should rejoice in the gifts that God has blessed that person with and encourage, assist and guide him or her. And so, echoing the first reading today, we should try to the best of our ability to encourage peace, progress and support to all we encounter, ensuring that all swords are turned into plowshares.

Consider the words of the ancient prayer called the Benedictus:

As for you, little child, you shall be called a prophet of God the most high, you shall go ahead of the Lord to prepare his ways before him, to make known to his people their salvation through forgiveness of all their sins, the loving-kindness of the heart of our God, who visits us like the dawn from on high….

I believe that these words, said of the newly-born John the Baptist by his father Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), apply equally to all of us.


The Peaceable Kingdom, Hicks 1834, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

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“We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares”, Gift of the USSR to the United Nations 1959, UN Building, New York, USA.

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They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another….          Isaiah 2:4

Well if only it were so! Today’s readings amount to a clarion call to complete change in expectation and attitude both in the individual and between nations. It is in expectation of the arrival of the Prince of Peace among us, and the consequent changes in us resulting from such an event. Or rather, the consequent changes we (and all nations) should demonstrate from such an event. So now it is Advent, a word from Latin meaning “arrival”. Preparations begin for Christmas, the arrival of the Prince of Peace in our midst, seen in a million ways, from supermarket carols and street decorations to Christmas cards being sent all over the world to where it really counts, in the heart and soul of each one of us. What does the expected event mean?

About 2000 years before the blessed birth of the Savior, God entered history for the first time by approaching Abram/Abraham in a city in the north of Mesopotamia. In the following centuries, those who accepted this still small voice, a people called the Jews or Hebrews, learned what sort of God this was compared to the contemporary versions seen in the area.  By the time Jesus arrived, God’s self-revelation had demonstrated a God of power, loyalty, mercy, forgiveness, one who listens, who loves freedom and one who is open to relationship with us. That made God distinctly different from all other gods. These qualities were slowly revealed through the ages in the interactions between the prophets and people and God (the Father, as we learned to say). But with the birth of the Son of God, these characteristics were actually demonstrated in real life by Jesus, putting flesh, as it were, on the barebones revelation of the Divine One. Thereafter, down through the ages, those same qualities have been demonstrated by the people we call the saints, under the inspiration of the third person of the Trinity, God’s Holy Spirit, giving example of the kind of life God expects of all of us. Hence there is an exercise all of us can undertake as an Advent preparation for Christmas. How do we demonstrate the divine qualities in our life, in imitation of God’s?


  1. Power. We all have power. In class I would clearly demonstrate this by asking students, “Do you have the power to make your mother’s life a misery – or to make her day?”…….. So how do we use our power?
  2. Loyalty. Sometimes called trustworthiness or honesty. Are we people who can be depended on to do the right thing? Is our word as good as gold? Do we carry through on stated intentions?
  3. Mercy. I prefer to define this as “compassion on someone who does not deserve it”. Are we able to act that way with everyone we know? And I mean everyone.
  4. Forgiveness. Jesus forgave those who murdered him. Could we do the same for the wrongs done to us?
  5. Listening. Can we actually hear what people say to us? Can we take in their meaning, hopes, fears, anything that concerns them that they share with us?
  6. Freedom. Are we true to our own self? Do we allow others to be themselves? Are we open to rejoicing in the gifts of others, delighting in their worthy triumphs and right demonstrations of skill? Do we help in their development in some way? Are we free enough within ourselves to be able to do all that? (Note that possessiveness or envy is the opposite of freedom).
  7. Relationship. Are we open to others, or not? Do we welcome others into our life in an appropriate and good way? Do we welcome new friends or acquaintances?

So there is an Advent calendar of a different ilk for all of us. Look at those qualities and see how they show themselves into Jesus’ ministry and become shining examples of an honorable life. Think of your favorite saint, and apply the same test to that person. Think of your own life and apply them there. With such an armory, if it can be called that, a person is good in the eyes of God. Such a person is ready to receive the Prince of Peace on the 25th, for Jesus will recognize one of his own immediately. In that way, Christmas will become what it was meant to be, the festival of peace among all people.


The Prince of Peace, Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Chartres 13thCentury, Chartres, France.

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Ave Christus Rex (Hail Christ the King), Baritus Catholic.

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“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him,
“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”   Luke 23:42-43.

Today’s solemnity marks the end of the church’s year. Next Sunday we start to prepare for the Christmas event, the start of a new cycle. That being so, the readings last week gazed upon the end time, the Last Judgement and the goal towards which all good Christians strive. Today we have an image of kingship as the focus of all that is: “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell.” But the gospel has what we might all consider to be the absolute polar opposite of kingship, with Jesus crucified before a braying crowd. Yet is it the opposite, or is it the ultimate statement of kingship as servant? Consider the ancient ceremony of coronation, or crowning of a sovereign.  At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London in 1953, the following took place, with the polar opposite juxtaposed here. The first event was the formal recognition of this woman as “your undoubted Queen” to which the gathering respond “God save the Queen”. [On the cross was the statement “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews” Mark says the crowd taunted “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from that cross”]. The most sacred part of the coronation service was the anointing of the Queen. [Jesus was anointed at his baptism by the Holy Spirit, at which moment he became the Anointed One, Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek]. The Queen was clothed in cloth of gold, “Receive this Imperial Robe and the Lord your God endue you with knowledge and wisdom”. [Mark says Jesus was clothed “in a purple cloak’ by Roman soldiers who mocked him]. The Queen received a spectacular gold and diamond-encrusted scepter “the ensign of kingly power and justice”. [Matthew says the Roman soldiers “put a reed in his right hand”]. Then the Queen was crowned, “God crown you with a crown of glory and righteousness” and the gathering in the Abbey shouted “God save Queen Elizabeth”. [Matthew and Mark both state that the Roman soldiers “plaited a crown of thorns and put it on his head” and then kneeled in front of him and mocked him as the King of the Jews, and spat on him and took the reed and hit him with it]. The crowned queen was then enthroned. [Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross, the throne of Christ the King]. It is almost as if the coronation ceremony had been modeled on the crucifixion itself


The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Westminster Abbey 1953, London, UK.

So in every respect, Jesus’ “coronation” concluded his mission on earth when he became the King of the Universe, as the church states today, and died enthroned and crowned, to reign forever. It was the final example of his role as servant, demonstrating to us the ultimate and sacred duty we all have to be loyal and true to God and God’s divine teaching. In forgiving those who had done that to him, Jesus became our numinous model of perfect duty to the end, with his total belief in God’s goodness and loyalty, despite every indication to the contrary. So too with us; through whatever adversity we may encounter, our trust and reliance on God must remain imperishable in the sure knowledge that as God’s true children, at the end we will be received into eternity as God’s faithful servants.


Christ the King, Monastery Icons.

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The Horseman of the Apocalypse, Dali 1970, private collection.

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[Jesus said] “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.”       Luke 21:17-18.

Today is the penultimate Sunday of the church’s year, next Sunday being the solemnity of Christ the King, with the first Sunday of Advent following. So the church turns to ultimate thoughts and events. From the earliest days we have been taught that this whole world and all its glory will end in an apocalypse of destruction. Many times in the last 2000 years some have declared they know when that will be. Yet we are still here, waiting. There have been occasions, however, when it seemed that this end time was, indeed, upon us. A few years after the death and resurrection of the Lord for example, the Jews revolted against the Roman occupation of the Holy Land, only to be defeated and the holy temple torched. A second revolt some years after that resulted in the total destruction of the temple and all the Jews expelled from Jerusalem, whose name was even changed. Those occasions must have seemed to them to herald the end time. But they didn’t. I can imagine that the eastern front in the second world war, with Germany invading Russia and the resulting monumental death toll, and the revenge and destruction wreaked against the German population when Russia defeated Germany must have seemed to those involved that this was the apocalypse. But no, it wasn’t, though it certainly seems to have been a ghastly preview of it. So we have experienced events in history which seemed very like the picture painted in Scripture about the end of the ages. Today Jesus teaches how we should confront such events with a Christian eye and behavior: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” I imagine Jesus was talking about our inner strength and conviction, with him standing beside us, able to withstand anything.

Even though this apocalyptic end time has not actually happened yet, there will come a time for all of us when a personal end time will approach, our own death. All of the above may, indeed, seem to fall upon us in some way or another. There will be a terrible realization that this present life is ending, the prospect of complete annihilation is inevitable, and we can do nothing to prevent it. That will be our personal and individual apocalypse. That’s when today’s gospel should be remembered and taken to heart, and strength and conviction take over from terror and fear. And today’s first reading reminds us that if there are obstacles which might prevent us from allowing the Lord to stand next to us at that time, we have the opportunity now to do something about it and prepare for it. It will be the ultimate trial each of us must go through, the ultimate test of our belief. Jesus will be standing next to us, as he says; do we believe that he will, in fact, be there? 

So as the church’s year comes to an end, we faithful are invited to consider our own inevitable finale to a life of faith and love. We believe in a God of love, of compassion, of forgiveness. One who listens and hears us. One who gives divinity to us at communion. We are asked to respond in kind, both to ourselves and to those around us, to all humanity. We are still in the here and now. A little reminder of why we are here, and what is to eventually come, should focus us on God’s expectations for each of us and invite us to ensure we act, think and behave as a child of God.

goNewOne 001

A Child of God, Poetry About Heavenly God

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The New Jerusalem, The Apocalypse Tapestry 1380, Château d’Angers, Angers, France.

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Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus…..     Luke 20:27.

A strange gospel today, posing a weird question to Jesus about the afterlife. The first reading also alludes to the afterlife, “the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying……” and again there is an allusion to the afterlife in the second reading, “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself……..encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word.” when it is clear that Jesus had been crucified and had died, yet lives to enable us to be encouraged and strengthened. And so what is the Sadducees’ question about, with multiple marriages in heaven and who would that woman actually be married to? So perhaps a little sitz im leben, as the scripture scholars say, would be useful (meaning what was this all about back then in that time and place?). First, it is important to know that the concept of afterlife was a major controversy at the time of Jesus. The prevailing wisdom for centuries had been that after death all life went to Sheol. All good people, all bad people, all animals, everything that had died, ended up in that silent, grey semi-existence from which there was no escape. That accounts, among other things, for the ancient Jewish belief that success and wealth in this life was the reward for goodness, and sickness or poverty, for example, the punishment. It is also the explanation of the Apostles’ Creed statement that Jesus “descended into hell”; it was to Sheol he went, to break down its walls and release the righteous. The gradual dawning of a new concept, heaven and hell, took a very long time to establish itself. Our first reading, from the second Book of Maccabees (a terrible time in Jewish history when the Jews fought for independence), describes events which took place over 100 years before the birth of Jesus, and which contains the afterlife hope expressed in today’s reading. So the Sadducees clearly represented the conservative point of view, defending the Sheol concept against the new teaching. Jesus was clearly a radical, therefore, dismissing such a concept as antithetical to his teaching. Hence his dismissal of their question as irrelevant to the joy of heaven which surpasses even the joy and happiness of the best marriage union imaginable. After all (though he does not say this) procreation in heaven is redundant! 

Christianity, therefore, clearly began with the new teaching, that life here on earth would foreshadow life after death, be it good (heaven) or bad (hell). All of Jesus’ teachings focus on that hope of heaven, and how to attain it. Indeed, without that belief, everything he taught could be dismissed as nonsense, as we were all doomed to Sheol no matter what, so make the most of life here and now to attain wealth and happiness. Jesus’ teachings are so much broader than that, where a righteous life, even if poor and seemingly useless (witness the story of the widow’s mite) could easily foreshadow the reward and the eternal bliss of heaven, as it now depends on our own will to live as a righteous child of God. Or not.

Having said that, it seems that the concept of Sheol, or more likely death being final and absolute, is not exactly unknown today. A film such as Wolf of Wall Street shows that life lived for success, wealth, power in the here and now, no matter what, and damn the consequences, is still very much with us. The TV show The Night Manager has an even more chilling example of a man on the make, prepared even to sacrifice human life in the pursuit of money. Life lived without the goal of goodness and right behavior can degenerate into the most devastatingly evil depths of depravity as there is no fear of the consequences. Of course, if you get caught, then there are, but one does wonder how many do not get caught. However we, who try to be good, trust  in a God of justice, in front of whom these evil people will stand, for whom even Sheol would not be a punishment fitting for such behavior. That’s why there is a hell for such behavior. And each of us can create our own idea of that. 

So today’s readings are a call back to basics. We are invited to refocus our own goals in light of heaven and hell, to evaluate our own behavior in that light and consider the consequences towards which we are heading. One final word about a very Catholic belief, that of Purgatory (coming from the idea of purgation). That concept in not to be found in Scripture, and is therefore dismissed by Protestant teaching. But it came as the result of thinking of the pure goodness and perfection of heaven and the pure evil of hell. What if we die in between them – not good enough for heaven and not bad enough for hell? Well, the best defense of the teaching I’ve heard came from a Jesuit priest who had converted from a strict Protestant upbringing. He had to reconcile his Protestant rejection of Purgatory and the Catholic belief in it. He said this. At the moment of our death, God shows us our own life from birth. It is mapped out, with the road showing right-living from birth to death as a straight line through it all leading directly to heaven. Every evil act we have committed deviates from that path. The further the deviation, the further away we went from the road to heaven, and consequently the greater remorse we suffer. Those who have deviated far enough and lost the way and have done nothing to regain the right path, they go to the other place towards which they have been deliberately walking. Those who have not suffer a greater or lesser pain of remorse, depending on the extent of the  deviation, but at least have tried to regain the right path. Remorse is the pain of Purgatory, cleansing us of the filth and stain of evil committed, and enabling us at last to attain heaven itself. That makes a great deal of sense to me. Remorse can be a terrible thing, and the thought of being overwhelmed by it is awful. It is a suitable purgatorial punishment however. Let us all try and minimize that possibility by right-living in the here and now, with the goal, the destination, always being heaven and the glory of God. 


Purgatory, Carracci 1610, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City State. 

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Christ Calling Zacchaeus, Palma 1575, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

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Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”            Luke 19:5.

Have you noticed that wherever Pope Francis goes, there is a forest of cell (mobile) phones recording the magic moment, perhaps even the ultimate honor of a selfie with him? Well the people furthest away from the pope might well be tempted to climb a convenient sycamore tree, if available, to assure themselves of getting some sort of look at him. That’s what poor pint-sized (“he was short in stature” we are assured) Zacchaeus thought and up he went. Well he got more than he bargained for, even more than whatever the ancient equivalent of a selfie was; here Jesus not only noticed him, not only called him by name but announced he would be glad to go to dinner with him! Imagine Pope Francis saying that to you! Yet today’s gospel assures us that that is exactly what happened. The story is so sharp, surprising, with details such as the exact tree climbed and by a man who was not tall, that I think it must assuredly have come from a real life event in Jesus’ ministry. And another thought. Remember last week’s gospel of the Pharisee who was so full of his own goodness compared to everyone else? Well today here is Zacchaeus, somewhat shady in his dealings apparently, an outcast as he was a tax collector and therefore a collaborator with the hated pagan Roman occupying force, wealthy as a consequence and therefore hated by everybody. Yet he wanted to see who this traveling holy man was…. Why? Perhaps that’s what Jesus thought, and hence his surprising and controversial statement that he would eat with this man, thereby shocking the local Jewish community. And sure enough, Zacchaeus, clearly moved by the presence of goodness and grace, the presence of God, declares his reformation in the presence of everyone. No more swindling or pressure and much help to those who have nothing. The exact type of person that Jesus came to call to goodness. 

Comparing last week’s Pharisee and today’s tax collector is interesting. Last week we heard about a man who was utterly assured of his own goodness, so assured that he seemed to be praying about and to himself! There did not seem to be too much room for God in his thinking. We all have some form of weakness, sinfulness, bad attitude or whatever which flies in the face of the God of love. Some are better than others at dealing with such evil, and some deny they have any weakness at all. Truly good people constantly check themselves to make sure they have not been guilty of such sin, and will readily confess it and try to make amends. They are open to improvement, fully aware they are not perfect. Zacchaeus seems to have been such a one as that. It needed a shove from Jesus, as it were, for him to become aware of his failings, and the presence and strength of God to help him make amends. He was lucky that the Lord passed by; but we have the Lord with us always, and especially when we are at his table, at his feast. In our case, Jesus invites us to dine with him! What a glorious reversal of today’s gospel story. We are so privileged and fortunate to have the Lord wait for us, to be with us especially on Sunday, that we have no excuse for straying from his presence, from his message. And we are able to go way beyond a selfie with the Lord; we actually incorporate the Lord into ourselves and become Christ to the world by virtue of our communion with him. No sycamore trees are necessary, no cell phones or mobile devices needed; we have it all because, being Christian, the Lord dwells within us, and is seen by all in the way we interact with others, how we deal with others, especially those who have little or nothing, how we act and talk says it all. Thank you Lord.


The Last Supper, Tintoretto 1566, Church of San Trovaso, Venice, Italy.

Remember that Friday, November 1st, is All Saints Day, a Holyday of Obligation.


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Pharisee and Publican

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, von Carolsfeld, Die Bibel in Bildern, Plate 200, 1860.

For today’s Sunday Mass Readings, click here.

[Jesus said] “…whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”   Luke 18:14.

Today’s gospel seems to point to the heart of the entire gospel message. It focusses on one crucial question: God or me? or, put another way, others or me? It comes up throughout Scripture; Psalm 15, for example, praises the one who does no wrong to his brother, or casts no slur on his neighbor. Today’s first reading talks of the prayer of the lowly which reaches the Most High, and St. Paul talks of winning the race, keeping his faith in Christ no matter what. So Jesus challenges us quite clearly and directly: who is more important to each of us, God or self? Today’s parable could hardly be more clear about the answer: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector” says the Pharisee in the form of what he would regard as a prayer, though it is clearly a prayer to and about himself! When we pray to God, we address the ultimate purity, the source of all goodness and love, the ultimate Other to whom all praise belongs and who waits to return it. Who are we in comparison with such spotless perfection? Love, however, only requires one thing, to be given away and that is what our perfect God wishes to do, to love us and be loved in return. The Pharisee, unhappily,  is in love with himself! God wishes that we love God always and everywhere. St. Paul, under judicial sentence of death for his belief in such a God, loves God throughout, no matter the consequences, because the returned love of God for him will strengthen him through anything, just as it had done for Jesus himself. In the parable, the person whom God finds justified is the humble tax collector, a person who would be hated by everyone around him, but not by God. This man knows his limits and what has to be done to tear them down and allow God to enter. With the other, there is no room for God, only himself.

So today we are asked to look within ourselves honestly and as clearly without obfuscation as possible. Upon whom do we focus our life, our hope, our ambition, our actions, our trust, our very self? Is it on ourselves or is it to reflect the glory of God? Is it seeing God in others and in what we do, or is it in pride of our own achievement as if such talent producing it were our own creation? There is a hymn which attempts to sum up this ultimate commitment to stand with God, to have God within and allow God to take us over, as it were, written by none other than St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland:


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