Fr John’s Reflections

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.