Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), Caravaggio, 1605, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa, Italy.

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Once more Pilate went out and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you, so that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak. And he said to them, “Behold, the man!” When the chief priests and the guards saw him they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”    John 19:4-6.

Could there be any greater contrast between this image of the Lord and that from last Sunday when he entered Jerusalem in triumph? From adulation to contempt in five days is, at the least, remarkable. At most it is the resounding fulfillment of the prophecies in Scripture, especially and completely that found in Isaiah, read as today’s first reading. Those verses are so uncannily accurate that it seems almost to suggest a script for today’s horrifying drama. A man utterly innocent (as Pilate clearly knew) yet condemned to an unspeakable fate. On the other side there was a storm of hatred from a people who considered themselves cruelly misled and betrayed by a man they had hailed as their liberating hero. This was God’s chosen, they thought, who was to restore them to the glory of David’s kingdom, even more keenly felt as this was the time of Passover which celebrated God’s rescue of their ancestors from slavery; what better time for their hero to arrive and defeat the hated Roman occupation force? But no: their hopes collapsed in the farrago of hate and condemnation.

For Christians, this was the moment Jesus took the whole weight of the world’s sinfulness on his shoulders, our sins, for he was sinless. He could have walked away from this shame and degradation by simply denying all that he had taught, and denying any claim to be the Son of God. That would have meant the end of his mission, a humbling return to Galilee, never to be thought of again. But he did not deny any of his teachings, and for that he was put to a shameful, hideous death, the wage of our sin. As Isaiah says, “through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.” Hence to deny the forgiveness that we experience through the love of God is to deny the very passion of Christ. It was for this that he came into the world. By dying for what he taught and demonstrated, he proved the truth of his mission, a mission of forgiveness and love. We benefit from his suffering. Again from Isaiah, “Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” Hence Jesus’ last words according to today’s gospel, “It is finished.” His mission, his vocation given by God at his baptism, was complete. Then silence.

Crucifix Blessing Lights

“It is finished”, Public Domain Pictures.net.

The reflection on the event of the Lord’s Resurrection will be posted tomorrow.

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Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, Boccaccino (?), 1500, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice, Italy.

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[Jesus] took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.        John 13:5.

Have you ever volunteered for this exercise? I did (though not as a volunteer) as a Jesuit novice, and the Novice Master was Christus. It was utterly embarrassing, difficult, agonizing. I fully empathize with Peter’s reaction in today’s gospel. I did not like it, and was glad when it was over. But it meant that Christ had made a very powerful point, one which has lasted down to today. Matthew and Mark both have Jesus stating that he came to serve, not to be served, and this is clearly the epitome of that belief, reducing his disciples to anguished silence. This was the man who, but a few days earlier, had raised Lazarus from the dead; he clearly was divine in his power, able to do anything, God-like, and here he was acting the part of a lowly slave. One of the Pope’s titles to this day is Servus Servorum Dei, Servant of the Servants of God. Jesus made this point loud and clear to his followers, and they – we – must follow it. Servant leadership is a recognized branch of management studies; it apparently works in the “real world” as well as being a cardinal teaching in the Christian world. When I was a school principal I tried to implement a philosophy where I served the teachers, who served the students who were learning to become Christian servants.

Holy, or Maundy, Thursday is the last day in which Jesus was a free man. He knew that his days were numbered because he was not the stereotype Messiah the people were waiting for – and they had believed it to be him. No, and that bitter disappointment would mean his end. So it was the last day in which he could freely teach his followers. One point was that they were to serve each other and everyone else. Then came the Last Supper.

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The Last Supper, Doward, n.d., Fine Art America.

This was a Passover supper, commemorating the hurried departure of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, hence the unleavened bread, with no waiting for dough to rise, which Jesus took and blest and then told his disciples it was his body, to be given up for them. The original Passover was also the night an unblemished lamb was to be sacrificed, and the blood to be smeared over the doorposts and lintels of the Hebrew homes as a sign for the Angel of Death. Seeing the lamb’s blood, the first born sons of that household would not die, they would live. Hence the blood was a symbol of life. This echoes the symbol of blood when the Hebrews arrived at Mount Sinai and received the 10 Commandments. Animals were to be sacrificed, and half their blood sprinkled over an altar, the sign of God in the midst of the people, and the other half over the people themselves. This signified the eternal link, or covenant, between God and the people, becoming at that moment the People of God. Here the blood symbolized the life of God and of the people sealed together, hence another symbol of life. But then remember Jesus’s words at the Last Supper, taking a cup of wine and telling his disciples to drink “my blood of the (new) covenant” (found in all three synoptic gospels). This surpassed the Sinai covenant not with the blood of sacrificed animals, but now with a new covenant in the blood of the Son of God! Finally Jesus told them, ordered them, to do all that in his memory, a commandment, or mandate if you like, taken to be the foundation of the priesthood, because priests substitute for the Lord at every Mass, a re-enactment of the Last Supper. The word Maundy, used for this day, is a corruption of the word mandate (mandatum in Latin), which was given at this sacred event.


The New Covenant, New International Version.

Also, on this day, all the priests of the diocese concelebrate the Chrism Mass in the cathedral with the bishop, usually in the morning. This is to celebrate the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper, and also, traditionally, the three sacred oils are blest by the bishop and are taken back to all the parishes to be used sacramentally for the next year. These are the Oil of Chrism, used for anointing at ordinations, baptisms and at confirmation; the Oil of Catechumens, also used at baptism, and the Oil of the Sick or Infirm, used at the Sacrament of the Sick. The basis is usually olive oil, mentioned frequently in the Old and New Testaments. It was used at coronation ceremonies through the centuries, as Christian kings and queens were anointed in the same way priests are, taken presumably from the anointing of David as king by the prophet Samuel. Queen Elizabeth was anointed at her coronation in 1953, considered to be the most sacred part of the ceremony, and not filmed or shown in any way. The English monarchs are the only European monarchs still to be anointed.  One final thought. For centuries, monarchs would also wash the feet of some of their subjects as a Christian sign of humility. Francis Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, performed this ceremony every year:


Francis Joseph Washes the Feet of the Poor.

That died out in England, but was replaced by the distribution of the “Royal Maundy”, with the Queen distributing specially minted coins to the same number of people as her age (the 2020 celebration has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic). Hence Maundy Thursday is laden with symbolism and tradition. And it is the first day of the Sacred Triduum, Latin for the three days of the Lord’s passion and death and resurrection.


Pope Francis Washes Feet of Refugees, 2016, Centre for Asylum Seekers at Castelnuovo di Porto, Italy.

Reflections on Good Friday’s Readings will be posted on Friday.

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Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, Lorenzetti, 1320, Lower Church of the Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy.

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The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David…”     Matthew 21:9.

You will recall last Sunday’s gospel, where Jesus revealed clearly the power of God that he had in calling Lazarus from death back to life. John places that greatest of all miracles in Bethany, close to Jerusalem, with Jesus giving no prohibition that this should be kept secret. Word must have spread like wildfire, and it’s pretty clear that all of Jerusalem knew of it, which explains today’s introductory gospel, only a few days later, with multitudes greeting him as the messianic “Son of David”. Only God has the power to raise from the dead. Jesus clearly had that power. Jesus was, therefore the long-awaited Messiah. The beautiful paean of praise which St. Paul writes in today’s second reading from Philippians encapsulates all that, a humble, generous man with the power of God almighty. Clearly the crowd thought of him as the savior for whom they had been waiting for centuries. Their idea of such was a stereotype, however. Their idea was that the Messiah would indeed have the power of God, which Jesus clearly had, who would bring everlasting peace, independence and freedom to the downtrodden Jewish state, crushed by the power of Rome. In other words, he would lead them into a battle for total freedom from political oppression. Well, the first clue that this was not going to happen was the method Jesus chose to enter the city, on a donkey! This was to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah centuries before. Also, it should have been the first clue, that this was not a Messiah of war! Alexander and Caesar did not ride donkeys! The Pharisees saw that, hence the plot to destroy him mentioned last week. Clearly they accepted the political Messiah image, and taking one look at the Lord they knew at once that this was not he, no matter what powers were claimed for him. However, he was a star that first Palm Sunday, Pharisees notwithstanding. But it set the stage for what was to follow, hence today’s reading of the Passion.

Betrayal is a terrible thing. It is often the inspiration of great art, plays, movies; the movie Ghost has a jolting moment of total betrayal, bringing gasps from the audience. Hamlet considers himself, and indeed his whole country, betrayed. Caesar’s last gasp was “et tu, Brute?” If ever one of us has been betrayed, it is a moment never forgotten (though it must be forgiven). In a way it brings down our trust and belief in the goodness of humanity. It occurs in Scripture also; consider Joseph, betrayed by his jealous brothers and sold into slavery. And then there is Passion Week. Within a few days, Jesus went from being lionized on entering Jerusalem, recognized by all as the Messiah at long last come to restore the glory of David’s kingdom, to that same crowd baying for his blood less than a week later. In the meantime, there had been no rallying cry to arms from him (especially at that time of Passover, celebrating the release of the ancient Hebrews enslaved in Egypt led by Moses); Jesus did not stand in a high place and exhort them to battle. Instead he padded around the temple, teaching and healing, a picture of total peace. And this with the city on edge, just waiting for the word! In their eyes this was the ultimate betrayal. Their highest of high hopes slowly crumbled away and it soon became obvious that this was not their liberating general, not their highest hope, not their Messiah. They had been betrayed! And they wanted revenge for this bitter disappointment.

So this is also an example of the destructive power of the stereotype. The messianic image of the new David leading the Jews into conquest, victory and, at long last, glory, had taken hold over the 500 years or so of Jewish servitude under Gentile, impure, rule. Jesus did not live up to that stereotype, and as a consequence he was submitted to a terrible fate, horrible even by the standards of the day, a deliberately humiliating and agonizing public torture and death. And strong stereotypes remain with us to this day. For example, if you are Irish, you must be a ****; if Muslim, a *********; if Polish or blond-haired, you must be  ****. Remember the fate of many Sikh men after 9/11? Out of pure ignorance, they were thought to be Muslim, hence many were hounded and beaten up. Innocent Muslims suffered the same fate. They were all stereotyped, and the consequence was the same: suffering and pain for no good reason whatsoever. Asian students are often stereotyped as highly intelligent. Well, many are, but there are average and lower than average Asian students too, and that stereotype applied to them is going to be an agony to endure – and there is nothing they can do about it. So one little thought for this Passiontide is to examine oneself to see if there are any destructive stereotypes lurking inside. The latest example appears to be the hounding, even physical abuse, of local people of Chinese descent, accusing them of bringing in the corona virus! Stereotypes are wrong, evil and cause nothing but pain and injustice. Put yourself in the shoes of those people in ancient Jerusalem, thinking themselves betrayed, baying for the blood of a completely innocent man, and then into his shoes…. He who had seen two of his own betray him (Judas and Peter), only to be abandoned by all the others when he needed support more than ever before.

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Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, Giltner, n.d., Free Bible Images.

The first reflection on the approaching Sacred Triduum will be posted on Tuesday.

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The Raising of Lazarus, Juan de Flandes, 1515, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

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“[Jesus] cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out…”  John 11:43-44.

This, the greatest of all Jesus’ miracles, is reported only in John’s gospel. It also seems to be part of a progression, because Jesus had raised others from the dead as reported in the other gospels: the synagogue official Jairus’ daughter, who had died just hours before Jesus’ arrival (Matthew 9:23-26, also in Mark and Luke); then there was the widow of Nain, walking in her son’s actual funeral, so he must have died within a few days of Jesus’ arrival (Luke 7:12-15). Then there was Lazarus. It seems that Jesus deliberately waited for this to happen: “So when he heard that [Lazarus] was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.”  (John 11:6). So this time, Jesus raised someone from death after the funeral and who had been buried for four days! It is further suggested that this ultimate miracle, Jesus’ last, was the final straw for the religious leaders of the time. He was now an existential threat to their authority, and had to be put down. It was shortly before the final gospel events in Jerusalem, the reason today’s gospel has been placed on this day, the Sunday before Palm Sunday. In addition, this event took place in Bethany, today called Al-Eizariya, then and now less than two miles from Jerusalem, so there was no doubt that the news would be there almost immediately! Was this also deliberate on Jesus’ part, I wonder. In the eyes of the Jewish people, this miracle would be the conclusive evidence that Jesus was the new David, the long-promised Messiah, come to liberate the people from pagan domination. Note also that this time Jesus does not demand silence on the part of his followers as he had done so many times before. Everyone knew about this event; everyone talked about it. Within days the crowds would at last acknowledge his supernatural power and welcome him into Jerusalem as the conquerer, the Messiah, the new David, the King of the Jews. He must have felt confident that his message had been delivered, his mission was complete, his vocation almost fulfilled: the messianic prophecies had still to take their bitter course to the conclusion, especially those in Isaiah. The cross was to be the throne and twisted thorns the crown of this new King of the Jews!

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Bethany, Al-Eizariya, to the west of Jerusalem today.

It is obvious that for us raising people from the dead is impossible. When Jesus called Lazarus back from death, it implied that his spirit, soul or whatever you want to call his essence, had gone “somewhere” and now it was summoned back and he rose to life once again. So what possible merit is there in today’s miracle for us, other than confirming once more that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God? But I believe that there is a very important lesson for all of us here. It depends on the situation. For example, 8:30 in the morning, first class of the day in a high school. An enthusiastic young teacher flies into the classroom, and begins. After a while, the teacher realizes that very large percent of the students are “not there”. They are “somewhere else”. They might as well be dead! Young people, as a general rule, are evening or night people. Research on preferred time of day supports the claim that young people tend not to be morning people (see page 225 in the linked article). In other words, teachers are required to raise their morning-class students, as it were, from the dead!  My lengthy experience in teaching also attests this to be true… In addition, teachers and parents in dealing with the young many times find them blind to many realities, deaf to advice, almost always unable to speak with any authority; this may well be true of some grown-ups too. Christians have the obligation to respond to such ignorance kindly and gently. If we have not done that, remember that this is Lent. Is this another area where action, previously lacking, should now be considered? The Lord handled such people with understanding and non-judgment, though when he found complete resistance to his example and teaching (as with many of the Pharisees), he was devastating in his criticism. He knew their standing in society gave them the perfect opportunity to apply his principles into good practice, but many refused utterly, earning his condemnation. So this Lent perhaps a little self-examination might be undertaken: do I have any Pharisee in myself? Do I at any time or place behave with attitudes or actions which Jesus condemned? Or do I, in imitation of him, try my best to enlighten the ignorant, try to show good example to my neighbor, try to be truly Christ to the world as befits my baptismal vocation? Could it be that an act of kindness on my part to someone with low self-esteem or riddled with guilt or some other disability which holds them down could begin to bring them back to life?

Food for thought in the final weeks of Lent.


Christ Reproving the Pharisees, Tissot, 1899, The Life of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, The McClure-Tissot Company.

IN THESE TROUBLED TIMES, when even churches are closed due to the danger of contracting the coronavirus, interest has been aroused in “Spiritual Communion”. You might like to become acquainted with this little-known but ancient practice for those unable to attend Mass:


Also: Spiritual Communion.

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

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Laetare, Jerusalem: et conventum facite, omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum lætitia, qui in tristitia fuistis…”

Be glad Jerusalem: gather together all you that love her: rejoice and be glad, you that were in sadness…”         Isaiah 66:10.


Pope Francis in Rose Vestments, the Traditional Color for Laetare Sunday.

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“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”  Ephesians 5:14.

The Latin verse at the top is the traditional Entrance Antiphon for this Sunday (which may or may not be recited at Mass today, if there is a Mass!) It is deliberately cheery and even happy, and for a good reason: today is the midpoint in Lent as we move towards Easter, the preparation for which is the goal and whole purpose of Lent. So some celebration is called for, hence the (optional) rose vestments for the celebrant at today’s Mass. The rose color is supposedly half-purple, the Lenten color. In the old days, this day saw the blessing of the golden rose which the Pope would send to Catholic monarchs in Europe:


Golden Rose sent by the Pope to Rudolph III of Nidau, 14th Century, Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages, Paris, France.

Also in the old days, servants were permitted to go home to visit their mothers, hence “Mothering Sunday” in the UK, which is celebrated today. Let us pray in these dark days of coronavirus we may all soon be able to return to such a tradition.

So, that being said, what lessons do we learn from today’s readings? Today has a very long gospel (with a shorter alternative possible) taken from John, which gives a full report of one of Jesus’ miracles. A man blind from birth was spotted by the Lord. Presumably taking pity on the man, Jesus spat on the ground, made clay with the wet earth, smeared it on the man’s eyes and told him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam, just outside the old city of Jerusalem (its ruins are still there). He did so, and he was given sight for the first time. But that precipitated a huge controversy with the Pharisees, the guardians, as it were, of God’s law. That stated, and still does, that the Lord’s Day is to be kept holy. That had been interpreted as meaning no work. Well, Jesus had made a sort of mud paste to put on the man’s eyes – work, in their opinion – and this was on the Sabbath Day! Hence they declared of Jesus, “This man is not from God”. Well, OK, but how on earth in that case could he have worked a stunning and obvious miracle which clearly came from the hand of God? They wriggled, trying to see if the once-blind man was lying, but everyone knew him as someone who had always been blind. How could Jesus, who was clearly evil, godless in their eyes, be capable of doing such a thing? They were incapable of seeing that such a selfless, charitable and generous action could only be of God. It was not “work” as defined by them. Instead, it was “work” for another, a neighbor, a brother in need, done utterly without thought of reward or praise. It was the God of love in action, just for the delight of healing another person. The once-blind man clearly saw this, returning to Jesus and saying, as the gospel states, “I do believe [in you as Messiah], Lord,” and he worshiped him. 

Additionally, the longer gospel passage alludes to an ancient Jewish tradition which was also debunked by this miracle. Jesus’ disciples asked whether it was the blind man or his parents who were the sinners which had caused his blindness. That was a very common belief at that time. Any great disability, any failure, had to be the result of sinfulness. Conversely, any great success in life was God’s reward for being a good person, which often led rich and successful people at that time to look down their noses at the less fortunate who were clearly sinners. All that was probably the result of the belief in Sheol, a condition everyone entered of shadows after death, no matter how good or bad you had been in life. So any reward or punishment for good or bad behavior in life was believed to be seen while you were alive, not after death. In today’s long version of the gospel, Jesus states categorically, “Neither he nor his parents sinned…” effectively ending that belief for all Christians. This also explains that line in the Apostles’ Creed “He descended into hell…” namely, SheolJesus did that to release all the righteous souls there to allow them at last into God’s presence, namely, heaven, a radically new teaching for Jesus’ followers.

The second reading picks upon the idea of light, with St. Paul telling us that we are to “Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth”. The trouble with that is that we are the ones sometimes shielding ourselves from the light! We can refuse to incorporate Jesus’ teaching and example into our own lives, act as he would act, speak as he would, and so on. Being his disciple is not easy; often it demands of us actions and words which we might find almost impossible to do. But this is Lent, a time when we can confess that, seek divine strength and actually begin to do what Jesus demands of us. And remember we are not alone in that, for he promised to be with us – in prayer, in each other and above all in the Eucharist – each moment even until the end of time. It is always time to believe that, trust in that and do it.


“…he went his way and washed, and came back seeing”, Kirt Harmon, 2020.

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

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Jacob’s Well, Church of St. Photini, Nablus, Palestinian Authority.

Sunday’s Mass Readings can be seen here.

[The Samaritan woman said:] “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.”      John 4:25-26.

This is a famous scene, where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, and they have a lively theological debate perhaps not seen anywhere else in Scripture. So let’s play a little bit of sitz in leben here, a scholarly term to try and get to the setting in which the event took place in order to understand better what was going on. The gospel reading begins immediately telling us that we are in Samaria. This was the area between the Galilee to the north, and Judea to the south, both Jewish areas. Samaria was also Jewish, but…. It was a little bit like areas of Germany today where one has been traditionally Catholic for centuries right next door to a Lutheran area, also centuries old. Both are Christian, but…. Well thankfully Catholics and Lutherans talk and act together in a civilized manner today, but that was not always the case. Jews and Samaritans back then had a hearty dislike of each other. For example, the Samaritan lady stated that her people worship on the mountain nearby, Mount Gerizim, where their temple stood, whereas Jews worship in the temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. That was a point of contention. Further, the Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch, the first five books of the bible, as the revealed word of God, nothing more, rejecting the prophets, psalms and everything else simply as pious writings. That was worse. Samaritans were also known to marry Gentiles, which might have been the final straw; Jews and Samaritans did not get along together (remember this when you next hear the Good Samaritan parable: it astounded its first Jewish listeners). So the fact that Jesus and the woman were even talking astonished Jesus’ followers when they returned (seen in the longer gospel today). But she was certainly standing up for what she believed, but was clearly attracted to what Jesus was saying. Furthermore, the fact she was on her own, coming to the well near the hottest time of the day also suggested that she had been ostracized by the locals, a truth that Jesus reveals (also seen in the longer gospel); she was still not daunted! However, she was so deeply affected by Jesus’ message that she ran back to her neighbors announcing she had found the Messiah! They clearly heard her and went out to investigate. So this is a dramatic gospel passage of conversion and excitement. Note also that Jesus frequently says to his disciples to tell no-one of the various events which clearly point to him being the Messiah; there was a perfect example last week with the Transfiguration. But here, Jesus actually tells the woman he is the Messiah. He is clearly not the least worried that these Jewish Samaritans would get hold of the wrong end of the stick and hail him as the long-awaited new David who would smash the Romans and re-establish the Kingdom of David. All the Samaritan woman states is that the Messiah will “tell us everything”. So the Samaritans were part of the Chosen People, but followed a different tradition. Jesus corrects this, and says salvation must be from the Jews, the Jews of the Jerusalem tradition, not the Samaritans.

Perhaps this explains the choice of today’s first reading, the moaning and complaints of God’s Chosen People in the wilderness: “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt. Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” This hardly shows a rock-solid trust in God! True, as slaves in Egypt they knew where the next scrap of a meal was coming from, that they had a kind of miserable roof over their heads each night, unlike the wandering in the desert. It is said that it was this attitude which convinced God they were not the generation to inherit the Promised Land, hence condemned to wander for a generation (40 years). Today’s psalm declared the kind of trust we should all have in God: “For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.” Perhaps Jesus viewed the Samaritans as a lost people, not trusting in the promise that salvation would come from Jerusalem, whither he was bound.

Is there a lesson for us here? Are there Christians who sort of follow the Lord, but not quite fully? Are there among us some who shop around for the bits of gospel teaching which sound OK, but ignore other bits which are too demanding? Are they similar to the sort of moaning Chosen People in the desert, happy to be free of slavery (perhaps) but not happy in what they have to do to achieve the Promised Land? It isn’t easy to be a true Christian, to take in all that Jesus demands and respond positively to it. It takes trust (unlike those in the wilderness) and true belief (unlike the Samaritans). With those two qualities, total trust and belief, total Christianity can be forged in the fire, and a rock-solid basis to life is to be found, against which the gates of hell will not prevail. Alone this is impossible. With the Lord present in sacred word, people (us), loyal priest and Eucharist, it can be so. And so it must be, and Lent is the time to do it.


Christ and Woman of Samaria, Veronese, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

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The Lord Directing Abram to Count the Stars, Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860, Bible in Pictures.

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The LORD said to Abram: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.    Genesis 12:1.

Today’s first reading, from the 12th chapter of Genesis, is arguably one of the most significant passages in all of Scripture. Many scholars have said that the previous 11 chapters are predominantly theological, not historical. They record the thoughts and reflections and handed-down stories of how everything began. That is not to say they were human invention; no – they are all inspired by God to allow us to understand why things are as they are today. That explains, for example, why there are two creation stories, not one. These early chapters also offer us an explanation as to why we sometimes become alienated from ourselves (seen in last Sunday’s readings, where Adam and Eve clothe themselves which was the first result of their disobedience) which may lead ultimately to self-hatred and  worse; alienation from each other (seen where Adam blames Eve to explain his action, demonstrating alienation neighbor from neighbor, which might possibly lead to hatred and worse), and so on, all because of our disobedience of God’s commands. These creation stories are profoundly wise and true from a theological point of view, but not from an historical point of view. That is why Genesis 12 is so important: it is here that God enters human history directly. Here is God beginning to instruct us in the right and proper way to lead our lives in the here and now. Now, God’s intervention was not random, such at spinning a globe and sticking a pin in it somewhere to begin. No; it was deliberate and almost certainly in reaction to the time and place. The man whom God approached was no spring chicken; Abram was 75 years old (Genesis 12:4). His barren wife Sarai was perhaps about 80 at that time. They lived in Haran, northern Mesopotamia. God told the old man to pack up everything and move to Canaan, a country to the south of Haran, on the Mediterranean coast, about which Abram had no knowledge. God promised land and ancestors to him, despite his wife being barren. Abram believed, and moved. Now Canaan (and several other locations in the Mediterranean area) at that time believed in and worshipped brutal and, they believed, powerful gods. I say that because child sacrifice was an accepted practice at that time. It is my belief that this was what prompted God to enter our human history. That ancient people thought they were doing the right and proper thing in accepting a very high “price”, sacrificing their children, when they asked for, or tried to “buy”, a great favor of the gods (among them Moloch), such as delivery from invasion or famine, or, alternatively, to keep them happy. It was logical, but contrary to our God’s will, but this was a God unknown to them. God would change all that by guiding a new people in their midst, the Hebrews, in ways which were also new, but this time reflecting God’s will in the midst of pagan belief. It took time to wipe out child sacrifice, echoed in the acceptance, for example, of Abraham obeying God’s command to sacrifice his only son Isaac. God’s last second prevention of that revealed for the first time the divine abhorrence of the practice. 


Babylonian Cylinder-Seal Representing Child Sacrifice.

Now look at today’s second and third readings. They reveal culminating results of that long, 2000-year history of the Hebrews, guided by the prophets and living by the divine Law of God. Paul talks of God who “saved us” , who “called us to a holy life” which ties directly into the first reading (as expanded here). The gospel’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus, appearing with Moses, personifying that same Law, and Elijah, representing the prophets who announced it, is the culmination of that 2000-year history, with none other than the Son of God standing in their, and our, midst. The Hebrew people had become the Chosen People, and were now ready for the arrival of divinity in their midst. There is a great peace and tranquillity to these readings. They reveal God’s greatest gift to us, his only Son, who freely and willingly invites us to eternal life and happiness in his company. Compared to the ancient Canaanite practices, how different could any two situations and times be!

The Lenten lesson here, perhaps, is a reminder of the evil of which humanity is capable. Each of us is able to upset that peace and tranquillity by destroying the law of love which puts God’s will for us first every time. We won’t be sacrificing children of course, but we are able to kill God’s will and substitute our own will in its place, sacrificing our own guardian angel as it were, representing God’s life in our own soul, for our own selfish ends. This is the time of the year to look at that possibility in the face, and if we find it there, resolve to deal with it.

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The Angel of God Stops the Sacrifice of Isaac, 13th Century German, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow, Scotland.

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The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Duccio, 1310, The Frick Collection, New York City, USA.

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“At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”  Matthew 4:1.

This is the time of the year in our northern hemisphere at least, when the notion of spring cleaning takes root, gnaws at us until eventually many of us are moved to do something about it. The accumulated dust and grime of a year in those almost untouched parts of our living space start calling to be cleaned, polished, dusted. And if and when we heed the call, the reward is a sparking home where you really can see the difference. And guess where, on the First Sunday of Lent, all this is leading?

I talked of venial sins a couple of Sundays ago. Those are the little seeds of evil which, if left to themselves, have the potential to destroy our very spirit, our soul, the heart of who we truly are. If left unchallenged, we could become people who are out for ourselves totally, and will never heed the cares and pains of others. We will have convinced ourselves that such pain is imagined, that all these other people need to do is pull themselves together. They are not our business. Then at that point we should heed Jacob Marley’s ghost call out Mankind was my business” but he heeded it not in his life, and Scrooge’s reformation began. We are not set down here to get everything we can for ourselves out of this world; we are here to heed God’s call, help each other and take care of ourselves within that wider context. And it is not as if there is any difficulty looking for others in need these days. Take a look:


I challenge you to find one smiling face here. These are refugees from their Syrian homeland forced to leave or be killed or maimed by bombs, shells, bullets and/or be tortured by crazed religious extremists. Their days are dominated by the need to find something to eat, to keep their children safe and warm, to find somewhere safe where they will be welcomed. Good luck to all that! Here is something we could address in our spiritual spring clean. What are we – I – you – going to do about it? They are our neighbors, they are God’s children. They are suffering through no fault of their own. They are penniless. They need help, they need friends.

All this is not forget the needs which surround each of us, the needs of our own families and friends. How can we help them too? So if we have not been as responsive as we could have been to the needs of others of which we are aware, Lent is the time to do some soul-searching. I remember years ago of giving up something (invariably chocolate) for this long season; surely it would be more positive to ask what should I do which I have not done before for this long season? Wouldn’t it be great if, as the greatest feast of all overtakes us, that at Easter we can look around and see the good that we have done? A spiritual spring clean will result in a grace-filled Easter, with the strength perhaps of continuing our good deeds for those in great need, as their needs will continue way beyond that time. But perhaps they will now be able to count a little more on our help and generosity as a consequence of this Lent.

Consider the Lord’s trek into the wilderness (today’s gospel) on learning he was God’s Son and, indeed, the long-promised Messiah. He was first tempted to use his newly-discovered divine powers as God to turn stones into bread as he was hungry. That would be to serve himself exclusively. No; we must be filled by God’s word which will direct us to help others. Then came the temptation to challenge God; no again. Trust in God, do not test God. Very well, accumulate immense wealth through all possible, even evil, ways to make yourself immensely rich and become the envy of all. No – to God alone be the glory and power; it is through serving God and not ourselves that true peace is to be found. The devil and all his works and pomps was rejected.

So as we know God’s will – to love God, neighbor and self – we must use our power, our finances, our skills and our prayers to help others, especially those in need. We trust that by doing that, we will serve God truly and well, and trust in God’s benevolence to implement our good wishes for others. By this means, we store up immense spiritual riches which will last forever and will strengthen our friendship with God. Well. I’ve convinced myself I need to something extra for Lent; now to figure out what would be manageable and best. Have a great spiritual spring clean!

PS: The link below claims that it is directed at women only. Don’t believe it!

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Little Yellow House Adventures.

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The Price of Forgiveness

More on the incredible faith of the Amish:

Ours is a faith-torn world in which most of us tolerate — however unhappily — a schism between what we profess and how we act toward our fellow humans. In such a moral void, the quiet actions of Pennsylvania’s small Amish community speak volumes about the call to forgive others rather than tally our wounds.

Today, the Amish attended the funeral of the man who murdered their daughters.

Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, was buried in his wife’s family plot behind a small Methodist church, a few miles from the one-room schoolhouse he stormed Monday. His wife, Marie, and their three small children looked on as Roberts was buried beside the pink, heart-shaped grave of the infant daughter whose death nine years ago apparently haunted him.

About half of perhaps 75 mourners on hand were Amish.

“It’s the love, the forgiveness, the heartfelt forgiveness they have toward the family. I broke down and cried seeing it displayed,” said Bruce Porter, a fire department chaplain from Morrison, Colorado, who had come to Pennsylvania to offer what help he could and attend the burial. He said Marie Roberts was also touched.

“She was absolutely deeply moved, by just the love shown,” Porter said.

God bless them.


P.S. — The Lesson of the Amish:

“Sometimes, faith helps ordinary men and women do the humanly impossible: to forgive, to love, to heal and to redeem. It makes no sense. It is the most sensible thing in the world. The Amish have turned this occasion of spectacular evil into a bright witness to hope. Despite everything, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” — (Rod Dreher, Dallas Morning News)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Thinking on the Margin, Brian Hollar.

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[Jesus said] “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies.”     Matthew 5:43.

If ever there was a claim that Jesus was counter-cultural, today’s gospel proves it. We, his followers, must turn the other cheek to the one who has just struck us. Someone claiming our property? Give that person more. Obliged to go where you don’t want to go? Go even further. Give to the beggar and agree with the one who wants to borrow from you. Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Hands up the one who has done all these without a second thought. On Monday October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into a one-room schoolhouse where Amish youngsters in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania were studying. He shot eight young girls aged 6-13, killing five of them. He then shot himself. The attack was completely unprovoked and utterly unexpected. The small conservative Amish community, a Christian sect derived from the Swiss German Anabaptist tradition, was devastated.


Nickel Mines, PA. 

A grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man. He now stands before a just God.” Hours after the dread event, a young Amish man knocked on the door of the killer’s house. His widow, mother and father, themselves devastated by the event, were there. He told them that his community did not see them and their family as the enemy but rather that they too were a family grieving the loss of a son. About 30 Amish attended the funeral of her son, among them some parents of the children he had killed. They offered their condolences to the grieving family afterwards. One cannot imagine a deeper demonstration of forgiveness than that showed by these peace-loving people to the family of a man who had wreaked unprovoked horror upon them. It was a shining, purest example of the very words of the Lord in today’s gospel in action.

We are all called to show exactly the same reaction to anything unjust or unfair thrown at us. The Christian heart has no place at any time, in any place, for any reason, for hatred, revenge or retaliation. Remember the Lord at another time, when Peter asked him how many times must he forgive? Six times? Seven?” Jesus said “seventy times seven times” or, less poetically, always (Matthew 18:21-22). And there are the Lord’s dying words from the cross itself to forgive those who had done that to him. Hence Christians must be cloaked in forgiveness now and always. It is at the heart of our belief always and everywhere, without exception. The root meaning of the word is to give up or even let go. The opposite would be to grasp whatever has not been forgiven, with all the evil repercussions that would entail. But it is not the easiest lesson the Lord has given us, probably the reverse – the most difficult of all. That’s why we have a sacrament of forgiveness and a God who calls us to forgive at all times as often, indeed, as we are forgiven for our sins. That is the way of life and light to which each one of us is invited.



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