Homily for Sunday 24
Ideas matter, because they impinge on our apprehension and understanding of reality. Wrong ideas can not only waste a lot of our time, sending us on wild goose chases, but they can also be dangerous. Soon after the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York in November 1999 stories began to circulate that it was all a government plot. Those kinds of stories probably helped to create a growing sense of disunity in the USA to which President Biden referred to on Friday. For decades ideas have circulated that the Holocaust never happened, that it was invented by the Jews. The latest such ideas see vaccination programmes as a plot by governments or shady business people to take away our freedom and put us under their control. Yet every day we hear of people who refused vaccinations for Covid becoming extremely ill and dying.
In the sixties there was a very popular song called ‘ Where have all the Flowers gone’. It was framed as a series of questions and answers – the flowers were picked by the young girls, the young girls were picked by young men who became soldiers, who ended in graveyards, graveyards covered in flowers – that were picked by young girls. Each verse ended with the words, ‘when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?’ Ostensibly a protest about the Vietnam War, underlying the song was the idea that history goes round and round in circles, and while we may come to discover that this is the case, we can find no way of breaking the vicious spiral. We seem to be ever condemned to making the same mistakes over again. Salvation never comes.
When Jesus says to the disciples, ‘Who am I’, they answer in terms of a circle of history that cannot be broken. They look to the past, to John the Baptist, Elijah and the Prophets and see history repeating itself in Jesus. Yet Jesus’ question was not, ‘Who am I like?’ but ‘who am I?’ . Peter is the first to break the cycle. ‘You are the Christ’, he says, alluding not to a figure from the past, but a figure of the future, longed for in hope by the prophets, a figure for whom many were looking out. But would they be able to recognise the Messiah when he came, or would their ideas about what a Messiah would be like get in the way?
So Jesus tells them not to say anything about him yet, because they are so full of their own ideas that they cannot cope with reality. That turns out to be the case. If Jesus really is the Messiah his fate will be to suffer and die. So Jesus tells his quite bluntly that he is going to be killed, and they don’t like it – and that includes Peter. Peter and the disciples will have to come to terms with the Cross before they can begin to understand who Jesus is.
Without Jesus’ Crucifixion, and his Resurrection, the story could have stopped there. Jesus could still have been a great teacher, a great miracle worker, a great figure of history, a prophet, a saint – but that would be all. But Jesus is more than that.
It took the Church some hundreds of years of meditation, reflection and a good deal of debate to answer the question Jesus posed, ‘Who am I’. The church’s response is encapsulated in the Creed that we will say shortly. We will describe Jesus as ‘One Lord’ true God from true God, through whom all things were made, who for our salvation came down from heaven.
We like to think that as a generation we are supremely clever, and ingenious, but when it comes to saying who Jesus is we often simply re-hash ideas from the 18th century. Unconsciously we adopt ideas that see Jesus as just one of us, but maybe a bit superior; we eliminate his godhead and refer to his presence as just ‘the bread’ and see our worship as something to be casually fitted around our lives rather than the source and summit of our lives. We see Jesus as just a holy man and we remain content with our own opinions, without questioning them or probing them in the light of the gospel or the Tradition of the Church – and then we wonder why our young people give up on the Church.
Many young people have never heard the gospel preached; they have only heard mistaken opinions about the gospel and rightly have rejected them, while we remain so comfortable with that state of affairs that we no longer realise that it is even happening. As Isaiah said in last week’s gospel passage, ‘This people honours me with lip service, while their hearts are far from me. Perhaps this week we might ask ourselves, Who do I say Jesus is? What would I say about him to others?
Homily for Sunday 23
’Jesus looked up to heaven and sighed’. I wonder how many us looked up to heaven and sighed as we followed the events from Afghanistan last weekend. How many of us experienced a sense of powerlessness – powerlessness to do anything about the fate of those left in Afghanistan who are now fearful for their lives, powerless as to how we can integrate all those people who have been airlifted and must now be wondering just what sort of world here lies before them. We will all say that something needs to be done, but we wont want to do it ourselves. Powerlessness to reverse the course of history. Powerlessness over politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and over the mind and hearts of the main players in Afghanistan. Leading up to the withdrawal the analysis and the blame game began, as if that was going to achieve anything. We need to let some heads roll. Our culture does not chop off heads any more, we do it in more sanitized ways.
In the gospel passage Jesus does not go out looking for someone on whom to work a miracle to highlight his credentials. People bring a deaf and dumb man to him, in effect saying, ‘You do something about him’. Jesus refuses to make this an opportunity for self-promotion. He is aware of just how extreme is this man’s condition so he takes him away out of view of the crowd. His use of touch and spittle is mysterious, it would seem to be part of the methods of healers in that time and place. But touch and spittle was not going to be enough. No more than the vast amount of armaments now left in the hands of the Taliban were able to bring a lasting peace. Peace has never ensued from a dialogue between the deaf and dumb. Jesus looked up to heaven and sighed, a sigh of anguish, a sigh of compassion for the victim, a sigh of human helplessness, a sigh calling for vengeance, vengeance over the evil spirits and the sinful condition within ourselves that can inflict on generations a lifetime of suffering.
Vengeance. We may hear plenty about vengeance in the months to come. We know what president Biden meant when he swore vengeance on the terrorists who killed so many at Kabul Airport. In our Old Testament Reading the Prophet Isaiah speaks about God’s vengeance. Like Biden’s vengeance it is a way of putting things right, but in the case of Isaiah vengeance is constructive, not destructive. It is not punishment for punishment’s sake. In Isaiah God’s vengeance is directed to rescuing the situation, offering a people new possibilities and a new direction, so he speaks of opening the eyes and ears of the blind and the deaf, making the lame leap high and the dumb sing for joy. What God offers is both the fulfilment of the individual but also a common peace which will affect not just communities but even the earth itself, hence the imagery of water gushing in the desert and the scorched earth becoming a lake. Saving the planet involves more than changing gas boilers or buying an electric car, it demands that we change ourselves too, that we sigh in the direction of heaven and recognise that our desires and passions, while God-given, are not in themselves the measure of all things. The planet will only be saved if we work with God, and not rely on ourselves as if God does not exist.
In the baptism ceremony there is a short rite towards the end where the priest touches the ears and mouth of the newly baptised person, in imitation of what Jesus does in today’s gospel. With those gestures he says, The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ear to receive his word and your mouth to proclaim his faith. It is a reminder to us of the great gift that baptism offers us, the gift of Jesus Christ himself, the Christ who shows us that our lives are interdependent on one another and on God, that we only exist because of God’s love. Take that love away and our earth will become scorched with war and parched with neglect in the dash to become richer at others’ expense.
The first step for us is the sigh, the sigh towards God, acknowledging our powerlessness and asking him to touch our minds and hearts and ask him to change within us what needs to be changed, so that we hear in a new way and speak in a new way, a way that brings out the best in human beings. The lives of the saints began with a sigh. The first step, in other words is a conversion of mind and heart, open to the word of God given to us through Christ and his Holy Spirit, so that it permeates our relationship with the Church and the world and gives us a spirit of generosity that leads us to a deeper communion with one another and our earth.
Homily for Sunday 22
In today’s Scripture readings we have returned to the gospel of Mark, and today’s gospel dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees has a strong contemporary feel to it. Most of us will have sanitised our hands this morning on entering the church. And we may have done the same when we went to the shops and returned home. It has become like part of the ritual. We do it almost without thinking; it has become a habit. Many of us would have dipped our hands in holy water before the pandemic broke out, and many parents would have encouraged their children to wash their hands before going out to Mass.
Indeed if we had been Christians in the fourth or fifth centuries the chances are that our church would have been entered through a courtyard with a fountain or facilities for washing our hands. If we could have asked some of those going into the church why they washed their hands some would probably have answered ‘Because we do. We always have’. If we asked them why, they might well have been at a loss for an answer.
In one of the psalms that was probably sung as pilgrims made their way up the hill to the temple the cantor sings, Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who will stand in his holy place? Another cantor or maybe the whole people respond, The one with clean hand and pure heart, who desires not what is vain, and has not sworn so as to deceive. Here we see the ‘Why’ of our ritual practice of washing our hands that had become minimised over the centuries. Through force of habit we reminded ourselves that when we enter into the presence of God we are entering into a place of moral purity, not necessarily the kind of purity and cleanliness that prevents germs from spreading, but an ethical purity. To meet the holy God we have to try to be holy ourselves, even if we can never attain to the depth of divine holiness.
Long, ingrained habits, however can end up changing the original meaning of the ritual. This happened to Judaism in the time of Jesus. In the gospel Jesus speaks about ‘man-made traditions’. He was speaking about a code of laws and customs, many to do with purity rituals like washing hands which unlike those in the Scriptures were not written down but transmitted by word of mouth. Knowledge of these rituals were particularly well known by the Pharisees.
Now it is easy to conclude that Jesus was simply talking about legalism, or even denying that there should be any rules about anything, but that is not the case. The Pharisees were a party of lay people who had become disillusioned with the behaviour of the priests who served in the Temple. Over the years their religious fervour had diminished, and they had got caught up in politics. One of the signs of this in the eyes of the Pharisees was that they cut corners in the ritual acts of purity as well. The response of the Pharisees in effect was, ‘If the Priests won’t do it, the people will have to’ so they set about practising at home the rituals the Priests were doing badly or not at all, and teaching others to do so as well.
Another aspect of these ritual practices is that they had gradually become a marker of social identity. I carry out this ritual to show that I am a Jew, to express solidarity with every other Jew.. This way of thinking has become familiar with us during the pandemic. We go into the Tube system, we put on our mask, and even the less judgmental of us may be counting the number of people not wearing masks. We cannot believe that so many can possibly be exempt and we may secretly be thinking that they are not playing the game. It was this kind of judgmentalism on the part of the Pharisees that caught the attention of Jesus. Why are your disciples not washing their hands?
This gospel passage was written not to tell us how bad the Pharisees were but as a warning to the young Christian community, and that being the case, to us. Jesus was not saying that we should abolish our Christian tradition or indeed some of the laws or customs that derive from that tradition but he is saying that we should discern the difference between what is fundamental and what comes down to particular habits that may in time become outdated or not helpful. So it is fundamental to our Tradition that we pray, but that does not mean that we have to pray in a particular way or go around telling people that my way of praying is the only way you should pray too. The Church’s ‘menu’ of freedom is very broad. The fact that someone may not pray in the way I do is not a reason to charge in and make them change, nor should we be saying, for example, that if you don’t say particular prayers or behave in a certain way then it is doom for the Church and doom for us. On the other hand, while many things might be legitimate not all things are helpful, either to individuals or the community as a whole. So sometimes the Church with the authority of the Pope and Bishops may determine that particular traditions are not exactly helpful or faithful to the fundamental tradition. In the end it comes down to prudence, which is also a central plank of Church tradition and we might recall the words of St Augustine – in necessary things unity; in uncertain things liberty; in all things charity. Clean your hands by all means, but do so with a clean heart!
Homily for Sunday 21
In this final passage in a series of gospel passages from John 6, we encounter the reactions of those who listened to Jesus expounding the deeper meaning of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. For those who were present at the miracle, the big story would have been about the bread, ‘That man Jesus gave us bread when we had none. Do you think he will give us more tomorrow? Do you think we might make him a king, so that we can control the supply of our own bread? Such a reaction would have been taken by Jesus as an example of his saying, the flesh has nothing to offer.
In Jesus’ mind the bread was important, but it was not the whole story. The bread was only the means to lead us to the giver of the Bread. In the Old Testament bread was a symbol of God’s revelation, especially in the Law of Moses. The wise man Sirach wrote, speaking of divine Wisdom, ‘Those who eat of me will hunger for more’ but Jesus offered a wisdom that the one who feeds on it will never be hungry again, a wisdom of the Spirit, not just of the flesh.
In the discourse that followed Jesus not only reveals himself to be the Bread of Life but invites people to devour this bread, to eat it voraciously, to take it into themselves, make it part of their very being. But for those who listened to Jesus, even among his disciples this was a step too radical, too far. This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it? Note how the gospel says that it was the followers of Jesus who were complaining.
Why were they complaining? Why did they find Jesus’ words intolerable? Because Jesus required from them a total commitment. First a total commitment of belief that what Jesus has to offer is himself as the one source who will satisfy our hunger of mind and spirit. Second, in the light of that belief, to change the priorities of our lives to live and act with the mind of Jesus.
Religious people, like other people, are very much tempted to say, What’s in it for me? We can be tempted to treat our faith as a kind of insurance policy, or an entitlement to certain services on the part of the Church. We want baptism, but we don’t want the commitment of attending the Eucharist Sunday in and Sunday out. We like the idea of a compassionate and forgiving Jesus, but we don’t want him to require us to change our ways or do something that may not be congenial or convenient for us. So we like the idea of Jesus standing up for the adulterous woman, but we don’t hear him saying to her, ‘Go away and sin no more’.
We want the consolation of religion, but not the challenge that comes, for example, when we are called to make sacrifices. We live in a world where many have made their decision, and have stopped going with Jesus. They have not stopped believing in God so much as drifted into living as if God does not exist. They are satisfied with a comfortable life, a life of well-being, satisfied with themselves, tolerant of their own shortcomings, quick to criticise the shortcomings of others if it interferes with their comfort. Jesus never promised a life of comfort, whether of body, mind or soul. Instead he promised the cross.
Last week we celebrated the Feast Day of St Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe spent the early years of his priesthood battling against religious indifference so he came to the attention of the Nazis and ended up in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. One day there was an escape from the camp. The punishment was to line up the inmates and select ten people at random to be put to death. A man next to Kolbe was singled out, an army sergeant with a wife and family. Kolbe immediately stepped forward and demanded that they take him instead. When the commandant asked him who he was he said simply, I am a priest. The commandant didn’t understand, but hated him the more. Kolbe and nine of his friends were taken to a tiny underground cell to be starved to death. They encouraged one another by praying and singing hymns together, much to the annoyance of their persecutors. After two weeks only 4 were alive, including Kolbe. The Nazis put them to death with a lethal injection. For Kolbe, eternal life, expressed in an act of selflessness, won out over comfort and personal well being.
I have always been struck by the final conversation of Jesus with Peter and his disciples in this gospel passage. Basically Jesus is saying to them, You’re free to go too. There’s the exit. Why don’t you take it too? Peter could only say, To whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life. How many of us have said something like that, particularly when life has treated us badly, or we have become very aware of the shortcomings of the church, or even people dear to us. If we have, we must be some way on the road to making that full commitment to Jesus and following him on his terms, not ours.
Homily for the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady
If we were able to put together all the facts about our Lady’s life that we knew and compose it as an obituary for the Times or the Guardian and present it to the Editor for publication, the editor might well reject it on the grounds that it was lacking in content.
From the Scriptures we know extraordinarily little of the biographical details of Mary’s life. We know nothing, for example, of those hidden years in Nazareth while Jesus was growing up, and little more about her life after the Resurrection. On the surface she appears to take part in a couple of cameo roles, brief appearances, in the gospel narratives. She enters, says little, and leaves. Yet Christians pray to her every day, the Church celebrates Masses in her honour, she has played a major role in Christian art, and theologians write books about her.
The little we know about Mary, and what makes her so precious in our sight, is to be found in the Scriptures – in a passage like today’s first reading from the Apocalypse – where Mary’s name is not even mentioned. The passage refers to a woman who is pregnant, threatened by a dragon, who gives birth and escapes to the desert, to a place of safety.
That’s all we read, but that is enough. These are the words of Scripture, words about God’s inner life and his desires for us. They are words that uncover the mystery of God and God’s desire to speak to us, and for us to listen to him. This Feast that we celebrate today, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, a dogma of the Church, was not even solemnly declared until 1950, but it has been intuited by the Church for centuries before then. God offers us not only his word in Scripture, but he also gives us time to discern the meaning of his word, centuries if necessary. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can remember the Scriptures in faith, so that they can guide us into the truth.
God’s word is quite economical with words. God tells us the minimum we need, but those relatively small number of words are pregnant with meaning, meaning that we are called upon to take into our hearts, meditate on, and then perform in our own time and place.
So today’s vision from the Apocalypse we see the sanctuary of God in heaven opened, and the ark of the covenant within it. These two brief sentences offer us two powerful images, the sanctuary, and the ark of the covenant, two images of an enclosed space, two places of extraordinary intimacy, two places of safety. Both images have their origin in the Scriptures, in the Old Testament, and as a pious young woman Mary would have known the stories where they appear. The ark of the covenant was a simple chest, known not for any beauty in its own right, but because of what it carried, the tablets of the Law. The tablets of the Law, God’s great gift to his people on Mount Sinai, were given to the people to carry through the desert so that when they arrived in the promised land, they could make the most of the new life he offered them. When the ark was present in the midst of the people, it was a sure sign that God was present through his law and that the people would prosper. Later, the ark was given a prominent place at the very heart of the sanctuary known as the temple, in the Holy of Holies, a place so Holy and pure that even the High Priest could approach once a year. When the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the ark disappeared for ever. As the people looked forward to restoration, they began to imagine the ark as a vessel of great beauty, and why should it not be? It was the meeting place of God and his people, the place where God received them as they atoned for sin, the symbol of God’s covenant with Israel as it awaited redemption. Likewise the beauty of Mary in Christian art draws out the beauty of her spirit, her interior life, a place of sanctuary for her son, the Son of God.
As a religious Jew, Mary, steeped in the Old Testament, was part of that remnant of the people who longed for the coming of the Messiah. Thanks to her Immaculate Conception she was already redeemed by Christ and she offered herself as a sanctuary, an ark for God’s word, preparing herself for his coming should he appear. In her openness to God’s word, and her readiness to do his will and welcome the Messiah, the Catholic tradition sees her as the ark of the New Covenant, receiving and protecting her Lord and preparing him for his work among the people. She becomes the sign in heaven amid the signs of the new creation brought about by her Son, signs of the ultimate destiny of a renewed earth. She is a sign of faith, a sign of welcome to God’s word, the one who holds the faith securely until it is time to give birth and her ultimate destiny is to be the crowning point of the new creation.
Traditionally the woman in the Apocalypse vision is seen as a sign of the Church which in every generation is called to faith, to hold fast to God’s world, and give birth to Christ by the preaching of the gospel. Like Mary the Church is called to take part in the struggle against evil and hostile powers symbolised in the dragon, and depends entirely on God for its safety. Although redeemed, Mary’s life journey was played out in the desert, the place of temptation, the place where God seems to be absent, the place where God can be known only in faith. Concretely that desert experience of Mary reached its culmination at the foot of the cross.
Today we celebrate Mary’s assumption into heaven. Over the top of the ark of the covenant was a gold plate in Hebrew known as a kapporet. It was known as the throne of mercy, or the place where God receives atonement for sin, where humanity was reunited to God’s love. As the ark of the covenant, Mary was the first of the human race chosen by God to be the recipient of his mercy. Just as the Resurrection of Her Son is the sign of God’s acceptance of his sacrifice on behalf of the human race, so the Assumption of Our Lady is the acceptance and crowning of her life of faith and love. In the Eastern Churches this feast is called the Dormitio, Mary’s falling asleep in love. Mary’s death was not a punishment for sin as we see it, because sin never touched her. It was the culmination of a life of faith and dedication that was fully accepted by God, the fulfilment of that special gift of God granted to her at the moment of her conception, given to her not so much as a privilege but as a promise to all of us. Where she has gone, we hope to follow. In the word of Mary’s song, The almighty has done great things for me ………….. and his mercy reaches from generation to generation to those who fear him. We inherit the promise contained in this prophetic song. We
rejoice in sure and certain hope that its promise will become reality in us too.
Homily for Sunday 19
If you are at all acquainted with what goes on at football matches, you will by now be familiar with a custom known as ‘taking the knee’. If you have been out of town, say, on another planet for the last couple of years, even with a good
command of English you might wonder what kind of action is implied by taking the knee. How do I take a knee? Well this week I saw it described in a newspaper as a ‘genuflection’. Now that’s a word we are, or should be familiar with, as Catholics, but it might be equally as strange to someone outside of the Catholic tradition. But at least one could be pointed back to the Latin language from which so many of our words have been derived and discovered it had
something to do with ‘bending the knee’.
Now admittedly the bodies of footballers are in slightly better condition than my own, but impressive is the seriousness and care with which they carry out the action. They do it as a sign of something they consider very important, and I do too, to be opposed to racism. Again our visitor from another planet would not understand the meaning of the gesture, if there were no words to convey meaning. In fact there are – the commentators tell us, and occasionally words flash on the screen as well. Likewise, our gestures in Mass look to God’s word to express their meaning.
The practice of ‘genuflection’ is most at home in Catholic churches, and it is specifically at home in front of the tabernacle, the place where the Bread which we proclaim to be the Body of Christ is reserved. My observation of people genuflecting over the years would suggest that a growing number of Catholics never do it, and even more do it in a casual or slovenly way – and that’s not the ones who may be suffering from stiff joints or arthritis. Children should be able to do it but are not taught.
We might be surprised to know that the act of genuflecting means a great deal more than ‘taking the knee’. We first come across it in an early Christian hymn cited by St Paul. It is a gesture of wonder, humility and amazement towards
Jesus in the light of his Cross and Resurrection, and it is a gesture of humility, obedience and respect for him given the significance of his teaching and his way of life for the well being of the world. Unlike taking the knee, genuflection is a
sign that points not to what I think, or I believe, what I am for or I am against, rather it points to Christ himself. Such is the greatness of what he has done that at the very name of Jesus, says Paul, at the name of Jesus we bend the knee and acknowledge him as Lord. [Without wishing to criticise, – at football matches the sign might be more powerful if players of different colour, cultures etc were to embrace one another!
But what are we genuflecting to? When the priest genuflects at the altar after the consecration or we genuflect, in an appropriate manner, towards the tabernacle, we do so because we believe that when we behold that bread, we
behold Christ himself and we owe him, in thanksgiving and for our own good, a gesture of wonder, humility, respect and obedience. Not a cursory glance, or a quasi curtsey without any personal conviction behind it, but a gesture that
actually requires a real movement of our bodies, our whole selves, in adoration.
To someone from another planet, even a profound genuflection would have little meaning without an explanation. Different generations have sought to explain the same reality in different ways. To give an explanation four words might be helpful – sign, symbol, sacrament and faith. Two of those words have been appearing in our recent gospel passages– sign and faith. Jesus’ great deeds (eg, the turning of water into wine at Cana, multiplying the loaves, healing the blind man) are called signs by the Evangelist. Signs draw attention to Jesus, but the people who see only the signs want what he appears to offer, without any real interest in himself. Literally, they want more bread. But some see beyond the bread. Following the multiplication of the loaves some see him as the Prophet who is to come into the world, or the Messiah, but still they can only recognise Jesus in terms of other personalities they know and honour. So Jesus becomes a symbol. By the same token, in today’s Gospel passage some reject him because of his humble family background. Few get to the stage of recognising Jesus himself for who he is in reality, , the One who reveals God to us in his own person. To do so demands faith, and we do not generate faith. Faith is a gift from the Father that we cannot account for. Hence Jesus says, No one can come to me unless he is drawn to the Father who sent me.
Today’s gospel passage is part of the sermon in which Jesus deepens our understanding of the Eucharist. People see the Eucharist as a sign, a symbol or a sacrament. What’s the difference?
A sign is just that. It points to someone or something beyond itself. The flag over Buckingham Palace points to the Queen being at home. It alerts us to something else going on. Road signs can tell us what we may or may not do,
but it is We who give signs their meaning.
A symbol is more than that. A symbol implies that it contains within itself some energy and power, the power of suggestion that acts on our feelings. Art and music can become symbols that act upon us; they can move us to tears, or create peace within us. The Coronavirus has become a symbol – the secret enemy with which we must to battle. It is no coincidence that we have become more aggressive with one another in this time.
A sacrament is even more than that. Its power comes from outside us and it is Jesus who gives the sacrament its meaning. It is Jesus who makes the Bread, ‘the Bread of life’. A sacrament does not depend on our feelings, or even our
intellect. Hence after the consecration the priest acclaims, ‘The Mystery of Faith. The power of the Eucharist comes from Jesus himself, so we can call this bread, ‘The Real Presence’. WE do not make the Eucharist, the Eucharist makes
us partakers in the divine life of the Father. True, the Bread is the real presence of Christ because it is a symbol and because it is a sign, that Christ himself chose, but it is more than a sign, more than a symbol. Those who listened to Jesus and knew their Scriptures saw the manna as a symbol –God’s gift to help them survive in the desert. But what Jesus offers is even greater, the reality symbolised in the bread. Hence we call the Bread in the Tabernacle, ‘the Blessed Sacrament’, a Sacrament, bread blessed by the Holy Spirit called upon by the Priest. Though it is still, like the manna, food for the journey, Jesus offers a gift only he can give, the gift of divine life which was made incarnate in himself, the Bread from heaven.. Before such a profound mystery, the least we can do is genuflect properly, if our bodies allow, and remember that to consume the Eucharistic Bread we must adore it first.
The traditional hymn, ‘O Bread of Heaven’, a translation of the original Latin composed by St Alphonsus Liguori, is a beautiful exposition of our understanding of the Eucharist and can be very helpful to our individual prayer.
Homily for Sunday 17
Last week when out shopping for food I noticed that there were considerable gaps on supermarket shelves but thankfully there were few signs yet of the panic buying we saw at the time leading to lockdown last year. Nevertheless the effect of the ‘Covid Ping’ on all kinds of supplies demonstrates just how complex our society has become and how, despite our know-how and sophistication, the fabric that binds us together, keeps everything running smoothly and enables us to plan our future can so easily be torn apart. In some parts of our world people are still starving, and this is often because through greed or war the necessary infrastructures have been torn down. In richer countries we bring shortages on ourselves through an attitude of mind. We fear that we might not have enough, so we hoard, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This Sunday we put aside Mark’s Gospel and for the next four weeks our Gospel passages will be taken from St John, chapter 6. The choice of this particular part of the gospel is an invitation to us to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist we celebrate every Sunday. On Sunday we are called together to recollect that Jesus not only rose from the dead but he is with us now, even though we do not see him physically as we see one another. We are the latest in a long line of Christians who have been doing this for some two thousand years.
When we think of the Eucharist most of us instinctively think of the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles. St John in his gospel remembers it too, but he remembers it not for the institution of the Eucharist, but for Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples in an act of humble service. By the time John came to write his gospel Christians were already celebrating the Eucharist on a regular basis, so John retold a story from Jesus’ life to help the early Christians, and us, deepen our understanding of what we do every Sunday when we come together.
Earlier in the Liturgy of the Word we hear how Elisha miraculously fed 100 people with twenty barley loaves. ‘I am going to show you something even greater’ implied John. Jesus fed five thousand men with just 5 barley loaves. No wonder the people who see Jesus at work acclaim, ‘this truly is the prophet who has come into the world’. and want to make him king.
Today’s gospel passage begins with a situation of panic. People have stayed in the desert too long. There is a massive shortage of bread and a state of panic among the disciples of Jesus. How can we get bread for so many, say the disciples?. You can, says Jesus and out of tiny resources he goes on to feed all.
John told that story to illustrate not the miraculous power of Jesus in creating supplies that did not exist but in order to feed our vision of a new world that we can bring about if we allow ourselves to be ‘fed’ by him. The miracle of the loaves is a miracle of hearts, minds and will. Jesus is showing us that whatever our resources, if we use them with his spirit, people can be fed, but hunger and the fear of hunger can only be fed if we allow God to feed us first. Hence the saying, ‘Man does not live on bread alone’, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’.
Homily for Sunday 16
You don’t have to trawl far through the internet to discover that two of our recent Prime Ministers were described as the worst or the most useless in history. Recently one of our noble Lords is reputed to have said that 45 of our 55 Prime Ministers ‘have been absolutely useless, – incompetent, dim-witted, corrupt, ill judged or simply lazy’ – though he did go on to say that it was a tribute to our national character and democracy that the ship of state continued to sail anyway.
That sentiment about people in leadership is not new. One of the greatest put-downs I ever came across was the judgement of a Roman historian about the short-reigned Emperor Galba – ‘He seemed by general consent to be too great to be just a private citizen. He was judged capable of holding the highest office, if only he had not done so’. Leaders rarely deliver the hopes we have in them.
In our OT reading today Jeremiah expresses a similar sentiment. The shepherds he refers to were the kings of Israel. He expected the kings to practise justice and integrity but his conclusion was that both virtues were sadly lacking in the kings he knew. Like so many he hoped against hope that things could be different. He looked forward in hope to the coming of a shepherd king who would do what kings were intended to do, protect the whole people and keep them together as one, in peace, practising honesty and integrity throughout the land.
Jeremiah’s hopes are only fulfilled when Jesus Christ appears, a shepherd king who never sat on a royal throne, except the throne of the cross. But in today’s gospel passage Jesus is described not as the shepherd-king but the shepherd-teacher. Shepherding was about keeping sheep safe and fed, and feeding the sheep is a metaphor for teaching. But what kind of teaching! One of the first kings, Solomon, prayed for Wisdom as the most important endowment of a good king, and in Jesus such wisdom appeared. However even the wise depend on others to be wise, if a society is to enjoy good leadership.
When the apostles return from their busy missionary activity Jesus suggests to them that they need to rest, but only rest they actually get is to listen with the people to the teaching of Jesus which is carried on, says the gospel, at some length. Jesus’ teaching is the fruit of his compassion for the people, not to gain votes or to exploit them, but to teach them wisdom. The greater the wisdom, the greater the happiness.
Why did Mark say that Jesus taught the people and the apostles at length? Probably for the same reason that we need to be taught at length now – not just the sinners, or the lapsed, or the poor, or any other categories we might think of, but all of us together. We are the sheep without the shepherd, if we do not enter into the wisdom of Christ..
Jesus did not teach through rules. He described what the good life looked like through stories, parables and images, and by modelling those images in his own life. He taught through invitation, an invitation to open one’s mind and heart to the possibility of personal change, a repentance that could embrace the rule of God.
Meister Eckhart, a Dominican friar who spanned the 13th and 14th century used to say, ‘God is at home. It is we who have gone for a walk’. In contemporary terms we might speak of how secularism has made us not so much independent as autonomous, and with that autonomy goes the sense that we do not want to be taught, because that is to admit that someone may know more than we do. Remember a couple of years ago the outcry against experts: that mentality persists today – in the anti-vaccination campaigns for example. History is littered with revolutionaries and idealists who gained power and then used it to feather their own nests. ‘To my own self be true’ has been turned into ‘I know best’, or to parody Descartes, ‘I feel, therefore I know’.
The heart of Jesus’ teaching is that we cannot be true to our own selves unless we are also true to God, because God has created us for himself, and as St Augustine said, ‘our hearts are restless until they find rest in him’. At the end of the day we are creatures, not little gods.
What Jesus has to teach us is not a set of ‘transferable skills’ as we sometimes say, like cooking or computer expertise, or even techniques of prayer, but an encounter with the very source of Wisdom where we discover that true knowledge is not just scientific knowledge or political skill or being media-genic but lies in the virtues which enable community to be built up, the poor to be loved as well as fed and to live with one another as people made in the image of God. That is not the kind of knowledge that can be acquired through a ten minute homily, or an hour’s lecture. It only comes as the fruit of life-long learning. It requires above all practice, like the taking of penalties in a football match, but in the end even practice does not guarantee that this penalty kick in this particular circumstance will score a goal. That depends on the grace of God. Maybe those footballers who make the sign of the cross before matches are onto something!