Fr John’s Reflections

Homily Ash Wednesday

It is hard to believe that the invasion of Ukraine started around this time two years ago. Many of us were caught up following events on a day to day basis. Perhaps central to Mr Putin’s strategy is that the European nations and America will eventually tire, and give up their support. This year the war continues to drag on, and interest has turned to the horrific events in Gaza. Both conflicts appear insoluble for the time being.

One might say the same about the great project we call Christianity. In the gospel Christ warned us that the Christian is engaged in Holy Warfare, in other words in the great conflict against those forces within human nature which prevent us from becoming flourishing individuals in a flourishing world. It is a great temptation for Christians to become dispirited, to feel that our small and seemingly insignificant contributions do not matter in the bigger scheme of things. In John’s Gospel Jesus reminds us that our Holy Warfare is already victorious, but we remain for now at the battlefront. At the last Supper Jesus said to his disciples, ‘In the world you will have hardship, but be brave, I have conquered the world.

At this very difficult moment in our history, characterised by so much violence, polarisation, the need to reset our economy, most of us, I guess, are feeling quite helpless, with a sense that there is nothing I can do. The marking of ourselves with ashes today reminds us of the fragility of life, and how no matter what progress we seem to make there is always a crisis ahead. Well there is something we can do; we can enter into the spirit of Lent in a deeper way this year, and enter into the prayer, fasting and almsgiving that goes with it. Lent is not intended to be a time for punishing ourselves, but it is a time for re-orienting ourselves towards Christ, and for changing our normal habits in order to do so.

At the heart of Lent is prayer. As Christians we pray in order to enter into the mind and heart of Christ. It is Christ who reveals to us that the God we worship is a God of love, and from Christ we come to know that love is costly, it involves knowing when to deny ourselves passing pleasures in order to live as true human beings. To live as a true human being involves us knowing that we were born out of love, we are called to live in love, and that love will find its fulfilment in union with God in heaven. In other words, those who form habits of prayer discover that there is a deeper joy in living close to God that can never be taken from us, however bad the world seems to be around us.

The greatest form of prayer for the Christian is the Eucharist, the Mass. It is at Mass that Christians come together, supporting one another, on this road we find it hard to travel, just as Christ found the road to Calvary. It is at Mass we listen to the word of God, and allow it to penetrate our minds and hearts. If we can let us make Lent a time when we never miss Mass on Sunday, and often come to Mass during the week as well. The second great practice of Lent is fasting, whether fasting from food or certain foods, or from things that give us enjoyment, for one this might be TV, for
another their phone, for another the football match that takes precedence over all other activities. Each of us has to discern for ourselves what that something might be. Not all of us will suffer from the addictive effects of alcohol or drugs, but all of us can become little addicts – we become addicted to particular comforts and routines that turn us in on ourselves, make us selfish and undermine our freedom to do go and turn to the needs of others. Each of us must discern, how do we use our time?

Fasting, if it is done conscientiously, is not easy. It turns us back to prayer, and reminds us of our dependence on God. It is also an act of solidarity with the poor who struggle to get the basics and have no bargaining power or the capacity to buy cheaply. When we experience hunger we are sharing the lot of the poor.

And finally there is almsgiving – almsgiving is the fruit of prayer and fasting. Authentic prayer sustained by fasting will prompt us to reach out in the direction of our neighbour. The point of fasting is not to lose weight, good as that might be, nor to save money, but to give the fruits of prayer and fasting to those in need. Again, this takes some discernment. A billionaire may be able to give more than the person with very little, but as St Leo the Great once said, both rich and poor have opportunities for doing good. Thus even if we are not all equal in our worldly goods, we can achieve an equal standard in the love of our fellow men and women.

Homily Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The people were astonished because Jesus spoke with authority, unlike the scribes.

When we speak of people of authority we are usually speaking of people who exercise a legitimate power and control over us, who make decisions or impose laws as to how we must live. We expect them to know what they are talking about, and we expect them to be honest and fair-minded towards all. In our society today attitudes to authority range from cynicism to downright disrespect, and the conviction that certain forms of authority are ‘in it for themselves’.

The scribes of whom the Gospel speaks were very influential in the society in which Jesus lived. They were legal professionals, a kind of civil service. They knew the Scriptures inside out, particularly the Law of Moses which guided the spirituality and day to day practice of Judaism. Later in life Jesus would condemn the scribes who belonged to the Pharisee movement for using the Law to impose burdens on people that they would never impose on themselves.

When Jesus, the son of a carpenter spoke in the synagogue, people were astonished. He was free to speak, but no one expected someone from such a humble occupation to do so. But what really astonished his listeners was something less tangible than the words he spoke. Indeed Mark’s gospel has relatively little to say about what Jesus taught. Its focus of interest is on what Jesus did, and on his character. For the crowds who first listened to Jesus, what came across was that this was a person worth listening to, because in speaking he exercised a certain exceptional freedom and honesty, as opposed to the scribes who as religious experts were inclined to use their learning to enhance their social status and were often very vague in their judgments. Jesus tended to speak more plainly and directly. With Jesus it is a matter of ‘what you see is what you get’.

But Mark goes further than this, and claims that Jesus’ authority is unique, and this is why he introduces the story of the exorcism by Jesus of the man who was possessed by demons. In the ancient world demons were the personification of powerful forces that were beyond human control. Jesus’ mission is essentially a struggle between himself and the evil forces in the world. The man who comes into the synagogue has been so completely and utterly taken over by these forces that we hear only the demon, and not the person himself. The people in the synagogue would have regarded him as a threat to their well being. When such evil forces take over a person, then Jesus takes the initiative to heal them. Hence so many stories in the gospel are stories about exorcisms.

Because demons were so powerful, they were assumed to know more about human beings, and knowledge, as we know, can be a means of control, especially knowing someone’s name (think of the power of the data industry at this time. When someone I do not know calls me by my first name it puts me off my guard and makes me more liable to be scammed.) So the spirit not only publicly states Jesus’ name, but he goes on to say, ‘I know who you are, the Holy One of God’ – something totally unknown to the citizens of Capernaum. On the surface it looks like the demon has won complete control not only over the man but over Jesus himself, but that is not to be. Jesus commands the spirit to be silent and with a word causes the spirit to leave him so that he is no longer a threat to the community but can take his place within it.

At this early stage in the gospel the words of the demon, even though spoken in hatred, become a powerful testimony to the identity of Jesus. In the course of the Gospel many are astonished at what Jesus says and does, but few accept his authority. For many he remains at the level of a celebrity. Even the crowds who revere him on Palm Sunday will turn against him on Good Friday. But those who follow him to the end – they recognise that the source of his power comes from divine love, and those who follow him in faith are already participating in that divine love, because faith is ultimately founded not on the certainty of the mind, but the affection of the heart.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began last Thursday with the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. As the Churches know from bitter experience in the past, it is easy to lose unity but very hard to restore it. The theme for our prayer this year is love of God and neighbour and the Gospel Story of the Good Samaritan. While over the years there has been much dialogue between the churches and much convergence even on theological issues we still act for the most part as if the others did not exist and while in practice relations are no longer frosty they are not in practice warm. While that remains the case we will remain like the Scribes in today’s gospel, lacking in authority, the authority based on the authority of Jesus. We remain very much what Pope Francis has said of our own church, enclosed in our own self-referentiality. This week may we be reminded of the story of the Samaritan, a heretic who was locked into a cycle of hatred with his Jewish neighbours, despite their common origins in the Scriptures, who nevertheless when he saw a Jew lying injured on the road suffering the effects of violence picked him up and brought him somewhere where he could recover from his injuries. Mutual hospitality is fundamental if we are to preach the gospel with authority to those who doubt the relevance of any form of Christianity today.

Homily of the Epiphany of the Lord

As you will already be aware, Epiphany is a Greek word, and today is the only day when the Western Catholic or Latin tradition of which we form part uses a Greek word as a title. Epiphany means, literally, manifestation – the public manifestation of Jesus to the world. This feast had its origin in the Greek speaking part of the Church during the Roman Empire. The Feast of the Epiphany was the original celebration of Christmas in the Greek speaking churches, while in Rome the Church created the Feast of the Nativity or Birth of Our Lord to replace the pagan Feast of the ‘Unconquered Sun’ which died every evening and rose every morning, a feast celebrated close to the Winter solstice.

The Original Feast of the Epiphany was a much broader commemoration of the mystery of Christ than in the West. It included the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, and the Marriage Feast of Cana, the first of the miracles Jesus worked that pointed towards his true identity.. In time these became two separate feasts in the Christian Church, the coming of the Magi, celebrated today, and the Baptism of Jesus, celebrated tomorrow. The memory of the Marriage Feast of Cana is remembered in the official Prayer of the Church and once every three years the Gospel story is read on the Sunday following the Epiphany.

In the Western Church the Epiphany became closely associated with the coming of three kings to visit Jesus at Bethlehem. However the gospel of Matthew does not speak of kings, or indeed of three visitors. Matthew describes them as Magoi, which is best translated as astrologers, men of great learning who studied the movements of the stars and interpreted their significance. Over time these unnumbered astrologers became associated with kings. But how come? From a reading of the text of Isaiah which we have read this morning and the psalm that follows it. The early Christians, and ourselves, read the Prophets for signs of God’s will and intentions, and they read that ‘The nations come to your light (the light of God) and kings to your dawning brightness’. At the time that Isaiah wrote Jerusalem was a pretty run down place, nevertheless it had been chosen by God to locate symbolically God’s presence in the world. In Isaiah’s vision one day Jerusalem’s status would be reversed by God and the whole world, led by their kings, would come to adore God. Matthew himself alluded to this text because his astrologers brought gifts of gold and incense with them. He added myrrh, a very expensive perfume often used in burials, in anticipation of Christ’s death.

In the Hymn, the First Noel, we sing that ‘three wise men came from country far, to seek for a king’, whereas another popular carol begins, ‘We three kings from Orient are’. By the eighth century the Kings had been given names, Caspar, Melchior and Belthazzar, and the practice grew up in Europe of inscribing with chalk the first letters of their names on the doors of private houses along with the year. The visit of the Kings was associated with the giving of gifts to children in many parts of Europe and the East.

So what might be the relevance of this feast for us today. When we look around us two things might strike us about our world. First we are becoming more polarised and fragmented. A few decades back diversity was seen as a key to human happiness, but now diversity in reality looks like planets spinning in their own orbits without any real connection with one another. The prophetic scripture readings appeal to our imaginations in the light of Christ to understand diversity in a different way. There can be no diversity without a unity in fundamentals. Christ offers us the key to our longings and our search for truth without imposing on us a regime that destroys human desires and creativity. To many people this will be as big a surprise as that which the Magi experienced when they discovered that the goal of their search for truth and meaning ended at the manger in Bethlehem. The gifts they brought with them, gold, for so long the standard underpinning world economies, incense, symbolically drawing us into the realm where the material and spiritual connect, and myrrh, the expensive perfume of the super-rich – all of which, deposited at the manger as an offering to the Christ, become no longer a means of separating us from one another but drawing us together.

The feast of the Epiphany also invites us to imagine what we mean by truth differently too. As Matthew describes them, the Magi were dedicated searchers of truth who saw creation and observing creation as the key to discovering the truth. Not truth as just an idea, or a personal conviction, or an ideology to be imposed on all, or the fruit of mathematical or scientific calculations but as a person in whom the creator of the universe is united with a human being, without compromising the divinity of the creator, nor diminishing the humanity of the human being but rather raising humanity to its fullness.

This feast of the Epiphany is a call to us through the last of the beautiful Christmas stories to reset our imagination, and to discover that the meaning of life is not something we have to search for in endless experimentation but something already there, whose implications we have to understand and work out in the spirit of love that animated the Christ Child in whom word and deed were perfectly united, as was his divinity and humanity.

Homily Feast of the Holy Family

If we look through the pages of the Bible for indications as to what the ideal family will look  like, we will be disappointed.    Looking at the Old Testament we may discover that the families we read of reflected the culture in which they grew up and no one particular culture or one particular sociological model is singled out as the ideal family.   The emphases in the Old Testament reading suggests that all was not well among different generations – so what has changed?   That is true in the gospels too.    Indeed in the gospel of Mark, which unlike Matthew or Luke does not recount the infancy of Jesus, the adult Jesus puts some distance between himself and his natural family.

By that stage in the gospel Mark has already told his readers that Jesus’ relatives are so concerned about what they see that they judge him to be ‘out of his mind’ , implying that he may be possessed by demons.     When his mother and brothers come to the house where he is staying they send in a message to tell him they are outside waiting for him.     Jesus retorts, ‘who are my mother and brothers?’ and pointing to those disciples sitting around listening to him he says, ‘These are my brothers and mother.    Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’.

Whoever does the will of God – that is the link between this apparently negative aspect of Jesus’ family in the gospel of Mark  and the picture of Jesus, Mary and Joseph which we are invited to ponder in our Crib scene which is inspired by the gospel of Luke and inspired this Feast of the Holy Family which became part of the general liturgical calendar of the Church in the early 20th century.

At the heart of Luke’s story is an event – God took the initiative to be born and grow up  in a typical human family of the time.     By so doing he consecrated the family as the first and ordinary means of his encounter with humanity.     Today’s gospel gives us some insight into the family we call the Holy Family, holy because from the beginning, while in appearance not so different from other families,  it lived what we might call an ordinary life, but  in a very special way within the presence of God.     As a carpenter, Joseph would have been the bread winner, and it is quite likely that he travelled regularly from Nazareth the few miles to work in Sepphoris, a Roman city that was being built at the time.

The gospel tells us that the family were part of the religious community of Judaism and that they followed the Law of God meticulously by bringing their child to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.    That gives us a clue to their  inner life.    Having told us that Jesus was born of Mary, and Joseph was not his biological father, St Luke emphasises that Jesus is in a very particular and unique way a gift from God, a gift not just to Mary and Joseph, but to Jews and Gentiles too, in other words for the whole of humanity, as Simeon proclaims in the Gospel.

That Mary and Joseph brought a couple of birds to be sacrificed in the temple offers us another insight into God’s choice.    God did not choose to be born and brought up in a family where he could be financially secure and have a comfortable social position, but in a family of very limited means.    Wealth and position do not necessarily equate with happy family life.   Jesus’ family belonged to the poor of Israel, and it was this poor family that God chose to bring Jesus up in the faith and help him nurture his vocation – in other words his family brought him up to  grow in the love of God and his law, to know the demands of justice and fulfil those demands by a life of love.    To put it in a nutshell, his parents educated Jesus to do God’s will in an atmosphere where spiritual bonds were more important than the bond of kinship.

What marked out this family from all others was not then its sociological structure or characteristics, but the bond of love which permeated it.     Hence the Holy Family bring Jesus to the Temple, to the house of God, to give thanks for the gift they have received, and to offer the child back to God to do whatever God was calling him to do.     At this time in the life of the child, for Mary and Joseph might intuitively have known that God had a special calling for them, but the specifics of that call and where it might lead  was still hidden in the mystery of God, unknown to them, hence St Mark points out the unease experienced by Mary at what her now grown up son was doing.      Yet already people like Simeon and Anna perceive something special about the child, perhaps because they know that his parents are totally open to the will of God.

In the National Gallery there is a painting by Bartolome Murillo a seventeenth century Spanish Painter that for me captures what makes the Holy Family Unique.    It is called the Heavenly and Earthly Trinities.   Vertically it depicts the child Jesus descended from the Father and the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) while horizontally it depicts the Jesus standing between Mary and Joseph .    So the child Jesus stands at the intersection between the human family and the holy Trinity.   In the child the world of the human and divine family unite.    Christ belongs to the family of three in one Godhead, but also to a human family.  In the painting St Joseph looks out to the viewer as if to say, come and join us in this loving relationship.     The love of God is not some distant, far away phenomenon, it is open to us to let it abide in our families too.

The Holy Family is the prototype of every Christian family, a family devoted to the Word of God, to life in its fullness and to true freedom, called, like the Church as a whole,  to be a sign and instrument of unity for the whole human race.

Homily Second Sunday in Advent

In my home I have a copy of a painting by Holman Hunt. It is entitled, ‘Jesus, the Light of the world’. In the painting Christ is carrying a lamp as he comes across a door on which he knocks. But the door has only one handle. It can only be opened from the inside. The inspiration for the painting comes from the words of the risen Christ in the Book of Revelation, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you and you with me.

Christ will only come in to us if we let him do so. He will not force his way in. He will not trick his way in. He knocks discretely, and waits. Sometimes when my own bell rings, I cannot answer the door straight away, as I am in the bathroom. Some people wait, others go away. With the Lord too we
sometimes get the sense that he is being persistent, continuing to know on the door of our hearts, at other times we may have got so used to ignoring his knock that we begin to believe he has gone away. In the opening prayer of the Mass today, the Collect, the priest prays, ‘Let no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your son’. If my doorbell rings and I am busy, or answering the call of nature, by the time I get to the door the visitor has gone away – sometimes with unpleasant consequences. I find a card left telling me I will have to go to an office somewhere to pick up a letter or parcel which may be important.

That might be analogous to the situation behind the reading from the prophet Isaiah today. Isaiah addresses a people who refused to listen to God’s
messengers, the prophet, and they got their comeuppance, indeed the perceived punishment seemed to far outweigh any wrong they thought they had done.

So a new prophet comes on the scene, not with the message, ‘I told you so’, but with words of consolation. Console my people, Console them. Call to them that their time of service is ended, their sin is atoned for, that she has received from the hand of the Lord double punishment for all their crimes. Notice how the prophet describes the consequence of the sin they brought on themselves as punishment by God. Sin and the consequences of sin are somehow mysteriously woven into the nexus of human freedom. And though as a culture we seem resistance to the concept of divine punishment, we have substituted the belief that other people are necessarily responsible for all our ills.

‘Console my people, prepare a way for the Lord’. How can we make that consolation real in our Advent preparations for the Feast of Christmas? I found the answer to that question in the interview I saw this week with Fr Romanelli the parish priest of the small community in Gaza and have shared with you on the website. The parish is in the north of Gaza, the part from which originally everyone was told to flee a few weeks ago. The parish is still there despite the bombing.

And, even more surprisingly, normal parish life is still going on. People are meeting for Mass and saying the Rosary every day, they are visiting people in need and giving shelter in the church compound to parishioners and others who have lost their homes. They have separate meetings and opportunities for prayer and reflection for the men, women and children including a time for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

One of the things that will be very different this year is that none of the Parishes will be having the public festivities that they usually have in Advent, out of respect for the families who have lost their members or who have people injured. But it was in this context that the parish priest said something that caught my attention. He was speaking about the importance of the little parish in keeping the presence of Christ known in the area in these terrible times, especially through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The small parish was active before the war, and continues as before. Not being able to have outside celebrations, ‘It is important’, he says, ‘to emphasise our spiritual activities, and especially the sacrament of Reconciliation to help us prepare for Jesus to be born again and again in our hearts. We need to return to the pillars of our faith – to meditate in the Word of God, to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration, and to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation’.

‘Console my people’. Bringing consolation is the work of Jesus par excellence. And it is in the sacrament of Reconciliation that Jesus touches us in a consoling way, offering us hope and truth, but first we have to give him the opportunity, and open the door of our hearts – and get there. Jesus does not just bypass our sins, as if they don’t matter, or say, you are only human, so that’s alright then, rather he offers us both truth and hope by his presence in the sacrament Pope Francis offered us a moment of insight in one of his homilies when he said that our real sin is the desire to redeem ourselves without God’s help.

We need Jesus to lavish on us the tenderness of God and so give us hope. The days are long gone, I hope, when the experience of Confession was one of humiliation or a telling off. We should leave Confession with a spring in our step, overcome by the tenderness and compassion of Jesus.

I would like to invite everyone in the parish to join together next Sunday afternoon in the Church between 3 and 4, to spend time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and to use the opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And I would like to be able to take a photo of our full church at prayer, and send it to the parishioners in Gaza, to show them that we are in union of prayer with them in their hardships, as a sign of hope in the presence of Christ. Let us offer our gift of time next Sunday, to Jesus and to our suffering brothers and sisters in Gaza and pray for peace in the Holy Land, in our great city, and in our hearts. What Christ offers us is free; all we need give is our time, and our desire.

Homily First Sunday in Advent

A few years ago there was a lot of talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a condition affecting many people with symptoms of depression, irritability and hopelessness especially during the winter months. You can look it up on the NHS website if you are interested. I recall a time in my own life when I associated this with the clocks going back in November and expected it to go on until March.

But how much of this is in the mind? At one stage I had a moment of revelation – that the winter solstice, that moment when the earth’s poles are at their furthest from the sun, was the sign that our days were about to lengthen. From that moment of revelation my SADness was cut by half or even more, and that period before the solstice turned into a time no longer of sadness but of expectation of a new dawn and fresh light.

In 274 AD the Roman Emperor Aurelian declared that the Empire should celebrate a Feast around 21 st /22 nd December and named it the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. At this time the Roman Empire was going through its own version of Seasonal Affective Disorder and the traditional State religious practices were no match for the depression. Some 50 years later when Christianity broke out of the darkness of its own existence as a proscribed religion occasionally subject to persecutions, regarded by the society around it as ‘not one of us’ it began to celebrate not the rising of the Sun but the birth of the risen Jesus, who conquered death to give new hope to the world. And the period of looking forward to the feast became known as the time of Advent.

The seasons of Advent and Lent are not dissimilar to one another. Our vestments turn to purple, and there is a pentitential aspect to both seasons.
That is why our minds are turned to the Sacrament of Reconciliation at this time of year. But there is a difference. While in Lent we focus on ourselves and our individual call to repent, Advent is a more communal waiting when we do so as citizens of the world.

Often when we think of the world, we think of it as far off. In 1938 the British Prime Minister expressed his distaste for making preparations for war saying, ‘why should we be bothered about people in a faraway land about whom we know nothing?’ Since then through globalisation the world has got visibly smaller. I can now walk into a shop and buy avocados from Uganda, and their community celebrate Mass once a month in our church. But Globalisation also has its dark side too, whether in terms of climate change, economics or politics, we find ourselves involved in what is happening in far away places. And as we get to know individuals from different places in the world our relationship with them changes subtly. A few weeks before Putin’s invasion I happened to meet the Bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic community. Then came the invasion, and Ukraine was no longer a far away place of which I knew little or nothing. One felt a common bond. Similarly with the Holy Land. When I began studying the bible the Holy Land was a far away place. By the time I graduated I lived in Jerusalem for a year in a house where the priests had seen their Palestinian cook and his family snatched away by the Israeli army during the Six Day War.

The common link in these little stories is the Church. Indeed the Church has been a global organisation long before the world globalisation came into vogue. We believe that Christ came on earth not primarily to save my soul, but to save my soul by saving the world, to break down the barrier that separates individual and family interests from the interests of the whole global community. As Christians we believe that the mission of Christ is a work still in progress. He has shown the way but we are called to further his work of breaking down the barriers which we establish between one another out of fear.

In the Old Testament Reading Isaiah offers us a beautiful image of humanity. We are like clay in the hands of God who is the potter. Pottery can be both extraordinarily strong but very brittle – like our hearts, which in their hardness can bring us swiftly to disaster. In the Old Testament Prophets God’s people, suffering from disasters, are often described as broken pieces of pottery who need to return to the potter to be reformed, remoulded.

Advent is a time for Christians to acknowledge that while the darkness and the accompanying depression and irritability of winter is very real, nevertheless God has revealed his human face to us in Christ. He is our unconquered sun, shedding his rays of truth and love upon us. He is the one who opens our horizons, and he is not far away from us if only we are alert and listen out for his coming. And come he will, if we await him and do not lose hope. Like Isaiah we pray, ‘Do not leave us O Lord, our Father and Redeemer to stray from your ways and harden our hearts against you. Tear the heavens, come down and return to us’.

Homily 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time

One of the phrases that seems to be coming more popular among interviewers at present is the phrase, ‘What does it look like?’ I have heard it used several times recently in connection with the hostilities in Gaza. When the war is over, what will peace look like? The question looks for an answer that is clear, definitive and concrete, but because the future is unknown, and the past has been so unpromising, the answer escapes our imagination. Whatever picture we present it remains not a definitive conclusion, but an invitation to something we look forward to in faith, not unlike the divine promise made to Abraham – Leave your people and your country, and go to a land which I will show you. Abraham was not given the ancient version of a postcode, simply the promise that once he arrived he would know.

Over the past three weeks the Scripture readings, particularly from St Paul, have been directing our gaze towards the second coming of Christ, but today’s Gospel offers us a particular vivid answer to the question, ‘What does the Second Coming of Jesus look like’. It is a strange kind of answer, because it invites us in fact not to spend time imagining the future as potential spectators, but to turn to our present and examine ourselves in the light of the vocation each of us received in baptism to become ‘another Christ’. In our present lies our future.

Christ gives us all the help we need to examine our present. If we cannot imagine what it means to be part of the body of Christ, or to be ‘another Christ’, Jesus makes it very concrete for us. ‘I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome’. The Christ we cannot see is already present among us in the brother and sister we do see, even the brother or sister who is a stranger. Love of God and love of neighbour are not like two planets independently orbiting one another; while logically we can distinguish love of God and neighbour, in reality the two loves are revealed to be one action, like the shaking of hands in friendship.

In last week’s reading from St Paul the Apostle wrote of the Day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night. The gospel accentuates this element of surprise. ‘When did we see you hungry and give you food?’ In the case of the virtuous their generosity had come to be part of their nature, their very instincts. They did not do so out of any sense of approval or reward by Jesus, or fear of unpleasant consequences. They do it out of love, in imitation of the sacrificial love of the crucified and risen Christ. For them, judgement is a moment of grace. The others, represented by the goats, are equally surprised. They understood their kinship with Christ as a mark of honour, a sign that they were ok, they were saved and that nothing more was being asked of them. For them judgement is a moment of truth, revealing not the person they would like to be, or the image they would like to project, but who they really are.

Following Ava’s baptism which is about to take place, she will be anointed with Chrism. As I anoint her I will say the words, ‘As Christ was anointed priest, prophet and king’, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life. Every one of us who is baptised is called to be a prophet with Christ, to discern the ways of God. Every one of us who is baptised is called to be a priest with Christ, offering our lives to God in sacrificial love following the example of Jesus on the cross. Every one of us is called to be a king with Christ, in the spirit of the good shepherd, looking out with care for one another, bandaging the wounded and making the weak strong. This is a noble calling. Let us pray that we may have the loving heart of our king, Jesus, and that we will reflect the desire of Jesus for a world that truly reflects the will of God in heaven.

Homily 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Just a week before the incursion of Hamas into Israel on October 7th, taking prisoners and causing carnage and mayhem, the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States said publicly that the Middle East is quieter today than it has been for two decades. I remembered this when I read the passage in St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians that we heard today, ‘It is when people are saying’ how quiet and peaceful it is, that the worst suddenly happens.

Last Sunday the country remembered among others the soldiers who died in the First World War. Little did anyone think that one bullet that shot the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914 would lead to four years of war in Europe and the death of thousands of young men on the battlefields. Already the actions of Hamas have led to repercussions that have caused some mayhem on our streets and the streets of Europe and led to the resignation of a senior government minister here. When scholars and commentators analyse the present conflict they will probably conclude that the actions of October 7th , like the assassination in 1914, were the products of nations sleepwalking into disaster, long having ignored or failing to put out the fires smouldering under the surface.

In today’s passage St Paul likens the second coming of Christ to the Day of the Lord, a phrase often used by the prophets of Israel to refer to a future
catastrophe which would befall those who refused to recognise the signs around them calling for repentance. The prophecies of catastrophe were not uttered out of a spirit of hatred or revenge but a plea to their people not to drift into disaster. At the heart of Paul’s message is the assurance that Jesus Christ by his death and resurrection has already conquered sin and death and brought salvation. The victory has already been won, but it is not yet operative in all human hearts, or indeed fully in the hearts of all Christians.

What that means in practice is that the world continues to go its own way, as if Christ’s life, death and resurrection never happened. When lives are peaceful they are characterised by inertia; in times of crisis by panic. Important decisions are made on the basis of short term interests and the attractions of the moment. In the words of the Book of Proverbs we read the phrase, ‘where there is no vision, the people lose restraint’. That is behind Paul’s development in his teaching about the second coming of Christ. Like the Master in the gospel, Christ will come at a time of his choosing, and it is useless for people to try and speculate on when he will come. The important thing is to live as if he is coming at any moment. While the world lives by its own values, Christians on the other hand are called to live by the light of Christ, but if they do not act with vigilance, keeping in mind the final victory of Christ, they will become indistinguishable from the world, or to use the image of the gospel, they will be
like the man with one talent who refused to let the talents entrusted to him grow. They embrace Christianity in a minimalist sort of way, not breaking the commandments but not doing more than the commandments require either, and if they have God-given talents they use them for themselves rather than the community. They see their relationship with God as a contract rather than a covenant of love.

The Old Testament reading from the Book of Proverbs would appear at first sight not to fit into this scenario. Indeed it might irk people who see it as demeaning women. It is the cultural product of its time but it does illustrate Jesus’ words in the gospel. Well done, good and faithful servant, you have shown you can be faithful in small things. The woman is praised as an example of foresight, ability and charity. Far from letting her many talents go to waste she uses them for the benefit of all. In some respects she seems to be presented as a super-woman, larger than life. This might make sense when we realise that Wisdom itself is presented as a woman, a woman who co-operates with God in the creation and maintenance of the world not in a lofty and disinterested way, but in a practical, down to earth manner of living, an ever present guide and companion for those who follow her ways.

Homily 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the Catholic Tradition November is the month when traditionally the Church reflects on those of our members who have gone before us, whether members of our family or good friends who have died recently or in living memory, or those whom we never knew. Some of the latter will be counted among the canonised Saints of the Church whose Feast we celebrated on the 1st November. At weekday Masses throughout the year the Church remembers them by name and celebrates them not on the date of their birth but the date of their death, this being their birthday into heaven, with God.

When we compare ourselves with those great individuals and their generosity of spirit towards God and neighbour, we will almost inevitably feel that we have fallen short, and that will be true. But the God we worship has revealed himself as a God of infinite patience who is willing to help us prepare to meet him without embarrassment. I am speaking of course of Purgatory, the state or place of those we call ‘The Holy Souls’, those who are destined to encounter the Holiness of God.

The name purgatory gives us a clue to what is going on. Literally it means a cleansing, cleansing from those habits that got in the way of that love for God and neighbour which we desired. At one time Catholics thought of Purgatory as a kind of room off hell, not very different except the temperature was turned down, but Purgatory is very different. Think of someone going through physiotherapy. There can be a certain pain when you discover lazy muscles you never knew you had, but there is also joy at the renewal that will come at the end of the course. We know that on the word of the divine physician himself. Hell is very different. Logically we cannot speak of heaven without speaking of hell but we can also say that if someone truly desires God, even though they may fall in many ways, they can rest assured by the words quoted by St Paul in one of his letters to Timothy. “ If we have died with him, then we shall live with him. We may be unfaithful, but he is always faithful, for he cannot disown his own self”.

On the first day of November we celebrated the Feast of All Saints, that huge number, impossible to count, who have completed their journey and have joined the great Communion of love that is Heaven. And we speak of Communion advisedly. When we receive Holy Communion at Mass, we are ‘in communion’, ‘at one’ not only with Christ himself but with one another who form the Body of Christ, not just with the congregation that happens to be here today but with the whole church, and with the whole Church who are now in heaven. We belong to one great ‘Communion’. When I go over to Ireland I visit the grave of my father and mother and other members of the family. But I feel more ‘in communion’ with them whenever I join at Mass and we pray for our departed brothers and sisters who, in the words of the Second Eucharistic Prayer, ‘have fallen asleep in the hope of the Resurrection’.

Although Paul in today’s reading does not mention the word communion that is what he is writing about. Paul was writing to address a specific question that was troubling the Christians of Thessalonica. ‘Paul begins, ‘We want you to be quite certain, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, to make sure you do not grieve about them like the other people who have no hope’. Sometimes we take this to mean that Paul is saying that Christians should not grieve like other (non Christians) who don’t believe in an afterlife. But Paul was not speaking about the natural grief we experience at the death of a loved one.

When Paul first preached to the Thessalonians he proclaimed to them that just as Jesus had died and rose again those who had died in communion with Jesus would be raised from the dead by God. But he also told them that Jesus Christ would come in glory to bring his work to fulfilment and they would be united with him for ever. However when some of the community began to die those who remained were very worried, even frustrated for them because they were afraid they would miss out on the Lord’s coming, and more than that the communion they had enjoyed with the Lord and one another would be lost.

Paul’s response is to link the two scenarios together. Using imagery that the people would remember from an emperor’s official visit – like the sounds of the trumpet as the great man approaches – he says that the dead will be raised up and join the others who are still alive. Then all will be taken up on the clouds. The point of the clouds is that they both reveal and conceal. All will keep their bodies, but it will be a transformed body that cannot be described in human language – what we have not yet experienced, we can only imagine. In other words Paul is saying that their communion with one another is not lost by death and there is no need for them to give up hope that they will continue to be with Jesus.

Homily 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

A former Prime Minister at his first meeting of his Cabinet invited his colleagues to call him by his Christian name. Not everyone was happy with this novel attempt at overthrowing custom, and when he asked the President of the United States if he could call him by his first name, the President assented but himself continued to address the Prime Minister as ‘Sir’.

It was also said that a civil servant insisted on continuing to call him Prime Minister because it was his office that he related to and respected. We might ask, ‘Did it really matter?’ Obviously some people thought titles and honorifics have their place; they can inculcate a sense of responsibility in the bearer, but in our society that comes with the need for accountability too.

In the time of Jesus society was formal and hierarchical, and judging from the gospels there seems to have been an obsession with honour and status too. But at the same time there was an expectation of humility on the part of the elite. Young people were told that they should always stay at least one step behind their rightful status. So Jesus tells people not to immediately go to the place of honour at a banquet. Someone more eminent will turn up and you will suffer shame and embarrassment. On the other hand some else may say ‘Friend, go higher’ and so ensure that not only do you get the appropriate place and title but are seen to do so in the eyes of all.

The community Matthew wrote for was a young Christian community some of whom at least had brought with them the social customs of the Jewish way of life they had practiced up to then. So their leaders would have naturally compared themselves with the Pharisee scribes who were the leaders of the Jewish communities. As an enclosed nun of many years once said to me, ‘when a novice enters, she brings the whole world with her into the convent’.

Jesus discourages any obsession with honorific titles, and mentions 3. Rabbi, which literally means ‘My Lord’ was simply a title of honour then, though it could be addressed to a teacher held in honour. Father was used of elders of the community and ‘Master’ was used of a guide and teacher. Jesus would have been aware that the use of particular titles in the early communities were not simply pointing to job descriptions but to a desire for honour. By urging his disciples not to use these titles Jesus is not turning them into a kind of taboo but rather saying, ‘Don’t try to claim what you don’t actually deserve’. Remember that in our community the standard for honour is God himself and God has chosen that his kingship be revealed in love and service.

Jesus was aware that his own close disciples were also concerned with their own honour, and who was the greatest among them. As teachers of his Way, it was vital that they got their perspective right, and he used the example of some of the lawyers of the Pharisees to make the point. The Pharisees had worthy motives, namely to be scrupulous in following the way of God, and to do so they updated the written laws of Scripture to apply them more aptly to modern life.

But in the process and in their attention to detail they turned God’s law from something to love and rejoice in, and made it a burden. Because of their
stringent attitude to purity laws, the poor and the sick in body and mind found themselves outside the mainstream community. A worthy motive had been twisted into a desire for status and enhancing that status by controlling those who did not fit in. Hence Jesus spent much time and energy with these groups of marginalised people and claimed that he had come to lift burdens, not impose them.

At our baptism we were baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Through Jesus we have access to the Father by means of the Holy spirit. In the Biblical context a name is not just an empty word, it means something powerful. St Paul quotes an early Christian hymn which says that when God raised Jesus from the dead he gave him a name that is above every name. In baptism we are united with Jesus and participate in his power, but it is a power that is exercised in humility.

Our gospel passage is a warning not just to the church but to societies as a whole. The desire for honour and status is like a virus which can erupt at any time. It can manifest itself in our political and religious leaders, but spread into the heart of nations too. Many of the wars being fought at the moment can be traced to the desire for honour and status on the part of their leaders. Their people too can acquiesce, because that form of leadership responds to their desires too. At the end of the day we are all, and particularly Christians, are faced with a choice – My honour, our honour, pursued by self aggrandisement – or God’s, which revealed itself on the Cross.

Homily 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Last Tuesday there was a rare breaking in of grace into the very bleak news we have been hearing from the Middle East.

I am referring to the moment when an old lady who had been held captive by Hamas since the outbreak of hostilities turned to one of the fighters, who would appear to have been one of her captors, and greeted him with the word Shalom which in Hebrew means peace, wellness and wholeness – a gesture which was totally unexpected in a situation where words expressing wounded pride, self justification and revenge predominate.

The lady certainly did not try to make light of her experience, indeed she described it as a journey into hell. Just imagine for a moment the initial journey, slung over the back of a motorbike and then being pushed around the labyrinth that is the underground tunnel system of Gaza, and then the days of waiting, not knowing one’s fate, not knowing what might be happening to her elderly husband – and at the end of all that to have the will to say, Shalom.

That was not cheap sentiment. That one word came from a very different place than so many of the many words that have been expressed this week. She then went on to say that after she had been beaten at the start her captor – at least the one guarding her – had been kind. No doubt the cynics would judge him differently. Perhaps as Catholics we might describe her experience as a journey into purgatory. The difference between hell and purgatory is not that the people there may not have done very wicked things, but that there is still an opening for God’s grace to permeate, there is still a possibility of repentance happening. The difference between purgatory and hell is that between hope and no hope.

I have no idea whether Yocheved Lifschitz was a religious or a secular Jew, but the same Old Testament Reading from the Book of Exodus that we hear today is as much part of Jewish heritage as it is of ours. It is a tiny example of that mix of narrative of the past and command for the present that was given the word Torah in Hebrew, which we inadequately translate as Law’. Torah gives us a deep insight into the nature of God and the way God expects his people to act when they enter the promised land. ‘You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, says God, because you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt.’ In other words, Look back at your own experience, and do not imitate your oppressors, because that is the way you remain inside the cycle of violence and oppression and can never break free of it. ‘If you lend to a poor person, don’t load your loan up with interest’. Israel’s God speaks with a voice of compassion.

When Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment of the Law he quotes two texts. The first was from another book of Torah/ the Law, the book of Deuteronomy (Dt 6:4ff). ‘Listen Israel, the Lord our God is the One Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your strength’. It goes on to say, ‘Do not forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’. It was God who brought you out, who gave you the strength for the journey, not yourselves.

The second text was from the book of Leviticus – The starting point was the holiness, the otherness of God compared to his creatures. This holiness was something that Israel could aspire too, and so God goes on to say, You must not slander your own people, you must not hate your brother, you must not exact vengeance. In short, ‘YOU MUST LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR AS YOURSELF. I AM THE LORD’ (Lev 19:1-18).

In the Gospel Reading what the Pharisees were doing when the asked Jesus to pick out certain laws as greater than others was to practice idolatry. In the nations around them the gods would go to war among themselves, imitating the human condition of worshipping power for its own sake. Idolatry basically means adoring fake Gods who promise everything and deliver nothing. Jesus says in effect, ‘You must be like the one God, be other and worship God by loving your neighbour’. The many laws are but commentary on this fundamental Torah /law which determines our ultimate happiness.

In the coming of Christ the whole of Torah/the Law is abbreviated, so to speak, into one person, the Son of the real, living God who came to show us what divine love looks like, out of that living Purgatory called the Cross, preferring to give up his life freely rather than follow the instincts of the pagan Gods with their pride and their lust for power. The alternative was love, even love for one’s enemies.

Christians are called, in the words of St Paul, to imitate Jesus, to break with idolatry and become servants of the real, living God, and wait for Jesus to come from heaven. We all desire peace, but we know that peace can seem unattainable, or hard to attain but so easy to lose, that is why St Paul stresses both imitating Jesus now, while waiting in resilient hope for peace to be achieved through the working of God’s grace in the world – a peace – shalom which made its breakthrough this week in the brief gesture of an old lady.

Homily 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Watching some of the interviews from the Holy Land this past week one cannot help being struck by the shrillness of some of the interviewees as they defended their positions. In the Gospel scene today the questioners of Jesus seem to want to tone down the noise – Master, we know you are an honest man; you teach the way of God in an honest way, you are a neutral, so tell us then, is it in accordance with God’s law to pay the tax or not? Not taxes in general, but one particular tax.

The questioners were enemies of one another who on this occasion got together to trap Jesus on the basis of the ancient proverb, ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’, a proverb still very influential in the Middle East today. The tax in question was a kind of poll tax, about the equivalent of a denarius, worth a day’s wages. It was imposed by the Roman occupiers of the country – think of it as a kind of standing charge for the benefits of peace and security which had been brought about by force of arms.

The Pharisees already paid taxes to their own temple and more in accordance with their own religious law, or God’s Law, so they did not believe that they should also be subject to any human law. The Herodians belonged to the faction led by King Herod who were foreigners and did not have time for religious niceties. Herod was responsible for collecting the tax on behalf of the Jewish people to give to the Romans so in normal circumstances he and his party were despised by the Pharisees.

In this incident the Pharisees are the major players. They want to discredit Jesus by so flattering him that he falls into a trap, so that he either loses all credibility with religious people or he upsets the Herodians who work for Rome and would possibly face the death penalty. Either way, unlike many interviewees this past week, Jesus would appear to have some room for nuance, while getting the better of those who would put him down.
Jesus is smart enough to see the trap and apparently naively asks to see the coin people use to pay the tax. That the Pharisees had the coin in their hand was a game loser, because truly loyal servants of the Law of God would not even touch the coin as it contained the face of the emperor, and for the religious fanatics that was tantamount to idolatry. Jesus rightly called them hypocrites who claim a high and Godly moral ground but in reality compromise with the ungodly power.

‘Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’. Jesus tells the Pharisees that if they take advantage of the benefits the Roman Emperor offers them, then they cannot claim to do wrong if they repay him through the taxation system, and to God the things that are God – in its original context this would refer to the tithes and offerings that Jews were commanded to offer God according to the Law. At another point in the Gospel Jesus actually pays the required tax for the upkeep of the temple.

In the original context Jesus’ answer is a counsel of moderation against those who would manipulate the Law of God into a fanatical ideology. In other words, given the background, there was no need to pit the Law of God against Roman Law for the sake of doing so. As time went on Jesus’ words took on new meaning in the light of new circumstances. In the 1st Letter of Peter the author writes, ‘For the sake of the Lord accept the authority of every social institution; the emperor as the supreme authority and the governors commissioned by him to punish criminals and praise good citizenship. You are slaves of no one but God so behave like free men and never use your freedom as an excuse for wickedness. Have respect for everyone and love for our community, fear God and honour the emperor.

Peter makes a subtle decision between what is to be rendered to Caesar and to God, and this was to be tested when the early Christians were ordered to offer religious sacrifice to the emperor as a mark of civic loyalty. Many Christians refused and were put to death. Centuries later St Thomas More on the scaffold declared, ‘I am the king’s loyal servant but God’s first’. The action of the early Christian martyrs and St Thomas More were not those of a blinkered fanatic but a decision taken out of love for God and truth by people who were prepared to face the consequences.