Sundays 12-22 of Ordinary Time, B
Job 3:1, 8-11. Poor Job has lost his patience, and curses the day he was born, "Why did I not die at birth?" But God will eventually restore his fortunes.
2 Cor 5:14-17. Christ died so that we might live a godly, Christ-centered life. Since his passion and resurrection, everything has become new!
Mk 4:35-41. When Jesus calms the sea the apostles are dumbfounded and ask who he can be, who is able to do such a miracle.
Theme: Many lives are painfully anxious and fear-ridden, as if tossed on a stormy sea. Jesus Christ constantly seeks to dispel the fears of his disciples. We will only dispel our fears by learning to trust him more.
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth...
Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse
up Leviathan. Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light,
but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning-because it
did not shut the doors of my mother's womb, and hide trouble from my
eyes. "Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and
Some went down to the sea in ships,
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
They mounted up to heaven,
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;
even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know
him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new
creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us
go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd behind, they
took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with
him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that
the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep
on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher,
do you not care that we are perishing?" He woke up and rebuked
the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the
wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are
you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with
great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even
the wind and the sea obey him?"
- that we learn to sincerely put our trust in God and so find the way to overcome all our fears.
- for all who suffer nervous breakdowns, or high levels of stress, or are discouraged, that God will console them and dispel their fears.
- that we may commend ourselves, with all our cares and worries, into the hands of Jesus, our Good Shepherd.
- that Christians will bring to others Christ's words of encouragement.
Thoughts for 12th Sunday, B
Those of us who studied apologetics in our school days will remember the proofs of the existence of God, and how the proof from order was one of them. The argument that the order in our universe came about by chance, we were told, was as impossible to maintain as the proposition that the parts of a watch came together accidentally. Nowadays, the proofs of the existence of God seem to have been forgotten by theologians, but oddly enough they appear, at least in part, to be in the process of rehabilitation by none other than scientists. A interesting article, recently, had this to say: "Many scientists now find the laws of nature and the structure, order, complexity and beauty of the universe difficult to explain in the absence of a creator." Indeed, so complex and finely proportioned are the requirements for the emergence of living beings in this universe, that those who regard it as the outcome of chance are forced into claiming the existence of an infinite number of universes, one of which would inevitaly hae the right conditions for this to take place. If belief in God requires faith, which of course is true, belief in the non-existence of God, the article says, may even require greater faith.
One thing is certain, that for everyone, whether in the past or here and now, God remains the great unknowable. Indeed, according to St Augustine, we can state more about what God is not, than what God is. However - and this is the point of today's gospel - we can experience God. We can experience him in moments of great joy and elation, experience him in moments of sorrow and loneliness, when we sense his sustaining hand, experience him in moments of fear and anxiety, as did the disciples in that storm-tossed boat in today's gospel story. "Who can this be," they found themselves wondering, after what happened, "that even the winds and the sea obey him?" - something that modern science, despite all its advances, is incapable of when confronted with monsoons and tornadoes.
In the broad sense, of course, we have in this story an image of the Church, which has been so often referred to as the barque of Peter, the church invoking the assistance of Christ in the storms which beset it on its pilgrim way towards God. But here we have symbolised also the life of each one of us. For life seems, so often, a series of storms, of minor crises, with a major one thrown in now and again. We see ample illustration of this in the inspired writings God has given to guide us. We see it in great spiritual leaders, like Moses complaining, "Why Oh Lord, do you treat me so badly, that you load on me the weight of all this people, and say, "Carry them in your bosom," like a nurse with a baby at the breast?" (Num 11:19); like Elijah, the fearless opponent of idolatry fleeing for refuge into the desert, and then wishing he was dead; like Jeremiah, specially chosen by God to call the people he loved to repent, but cursing the day he was born; like Paul, the man who never lacked courage, but being dismayd and alarmed by the hostility and abuse he received at the hands of the Jewish community in Corinth, to the extent that he gave up trying to convert them and instead turned to the gentiles.
Few of us are called to bear this type of witness, but at times of difficulty in our own lives we should take comfort and courage from their example, and the fact that they remained faithful to the end. While Paul, for example, was in this disturbed state of mind, the Lord said to him one night, in a vision: "Do not be afraid to speak out. I am with you. I have so many people on my side in this city that no one will even attempt to hurt you" (Acts 18:9f). And Paul found courage to remain preaching the word of God in Corinth for a full 18 months. St Peter, no stranger to suffering either, wrote: "Cast all your worries on the Lord, for he cares about you. You may for a short time be plagued with all sorts of trials, so that your faith may be tested and proved like gold" (1 Pet 5:7).
But if you remain steadfast these hardships are not to be compared with the glory, which will one day be yours. As a certain modern writer has put it: "Fear tells us, as nothing else can, that we cannot save ourselves," that we need God. The story of Christ's death and resurrection reveals to us that darkness is habitable, not only the darkness of storms, but the deeper darkness of death, because God inhabits it - God in the person of his Son, Jesus, has endured death before us, has conquered it, and so shall we if we but have faith and trust in Christ.
The connection between the first reading, the psalm and the gospel offers to the community at prayer the opportunity to reflect with the disciples on the question: "Who can this be?" Jesus as the Messiah invites us to travel on uncharted waters, to make for unfamiliar shores and all this as darkness falls. The sudden rising of the storm seems to prove that the journey was a foolish idea from the outset, and the one supposed to be leading us is fast asleep apparently uninvolved.
Do we have here a presentation of an element of the original Christian experience? Perhaps it is a reminder to us that acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, Teacher and Healer is no guarantee that we will sail on trouble-free waters. Rather faith demands the risk of a radical trust that, whatever our experience, Jesus is always present to us. He wants us to discover that he is greater than our fears, and to know that even when the forces of darkness threaten to overwhelm us, whether he can bring us through.
It is not that he simply saves us from the storm but that he brings us through to the other side, strengthened for our mission in life. The "new creation Paul speaks about is not just an intellectual doctrine of faith but a reflection of his lived experience of being in "in Christ."
This is a coming to life in him which gives a new perspective to every aspect of human living. The key to an active sharing in this is prayer. It need not be formal, indeed perhaps it should not be. Like the disciples we too must sometimes cry out in our fear or panic, "Do you not care?" and like them be open to discover that he does indeed care and more deeply than we have ever imagined.
There are some powerful images at work in today's readings and a homilist would do well to stay with them. The image of the powerful sea overwhelming the earth but in God's control lends itself to an ecological treatment in either of two direction: backwards to the emergence of life from the oceans or forwards to what a destruction of the ocean's life will do today to the planet.
Denis Edwards wrote that "Two billion years ago, life existed in the form of sponges, algae and fungi. Less than a billion years ago, the first animal life seems to have appeared in the form of marine invertebrates. The higher forms of plant life emerged about 400 million years ago. By the end of the Palaeozoic period (230 million years ago), the ocean was populated by bony fish, rays and sharks, and there is evidence of the first vertebrates on land in the form of fish-like amphibians. Reptiles dominated the Earth during the Mesozoic period (230-65 million years ago), and mammals and birds made their appearance as well (about 150 million years ago)" Creation, Humanity, Community, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992, p.43.
The Western nations, especially, are now draining the seas of all their creatures, including the plankton.
The birth imagery for creation used in the Job passage could, perhaps, lead to an exploration of God as Mother. Ontologically we know that God is neither male nor female, but theologically we have a peculiar reluctance to speak of God in other than masculine ways.
Shakespeare's use of the tempest for King Lear could provide another fruitful line of development leading on to a consideration of the presence of Jesus in the turbulence of life even, and especially, when we are" not aware of that presence. Turbulence provides another link with the creation theme in that the earth itself would never have come into being if it were not for the conflicting forces emerging out of the original fireball. To quote Edwards again:
Conscious human beings have sprung from the original fireball. They are the elaboration of the potential already contained in the great primordial blaze of energy. God's creative action is not something extrinsic to this process. Rather, God has chosen to create in such a way that all possibilities are already contained within the original fireball. And the Creator is at work in the whole process whereby the universe unfolds from its fiery beginning, empowering it from within. (p. 38.)
"I cry to you and you give me no answer; I stand before you, but you take no notice. You have grown cruel in your dealings with me .... "
Words of Job to God (Job 30:20-21.) "Teacher, do you not care if we perish?" Words of the disciples to Jesus (Mk. 4:39.)
These two expressions of need may be 2000 years old and more but they still manage to speak to us. One is panic evoked by sudden, unexpected, physical danger; the other expresses the anguish of a protracted personal struggle to find a sense of purpose in suffering.
Despite their distance from us in time and place, they still evoke for us something at the heart of any threat to human existence, the threat of death or despair.
Fortunately such experiences of crisis are not commonplace (though they are not as rare as we would like to think), but when they do occur they are turning-points in a person's life; they are make-or-break situations. It is only at such times that one can really experience what it means to have a saviour, someone who not only has given you back your life but also its value and sense of purpose.
It would probably be useful for the homilist to illustrate this point from the kind of needs experienced by his own people. It would not necessarily be over-dramatic to refer to extreme forms of trial, such as addiction or depression, long illnesses or people rescued from physical danger; salvation is ultimately a matter of life or death. In any case such extreme need does exist, and by its existence it is a cry for help.
It was in fact at such a time of need that the Israelites first experienced the active concern of God which led to their fundamental understanding of him as Saviour. This Saviour was someone they could turn to at times of crisis, someone who would always come to their help whether as a nation or as individuals. This is the kind of picture that emerges from today's Responsorial psalm and lies behind the disciples" reaction to the storm that is described in the Gospel. The nature of their need is such that it demands immediate response. It is something so threatening that. it closes in on those involved, not allowing them to see beyond their own situation. It is only after they have been rescued that they can see beyond themselves and begin to wonder about their deliverer.
"Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress" (Ps. 107:28.) This verse from today's psalm summarises the structure of the Gospel that leads to the question about Jesus. The aim is to present Jesus as the Saviour. He takes up the role of the Old Testament: God as the deliverer of his people. Even though the Gospel presents Jesus as this kind of Saviour, it already implies that there are inadequacies in this view. Jesus criticised the disciples for their lack of faith. They did expect him to do something, but they are so bound up in their sudden danger that they fail to see beyond themselves to a full appreciation of who he is. What is implied is criticism of the Saviour as one who rescues from every danger, some kind of a deus ex machina,
It is simply not a fact that God in Jesus rescues people from all the material difficulties and tribulations of this life. This forces us to reflect further on the question of suffering and human need, in the search for its possible purposefulness in the plan of God.
It is the virtue of the Book of Job that it opens up this whole area for reflection. Job's virtuous life coupled with his protracted sufferings led him on the search for meaning. The danger he faced was not immediate death but approaching despair. He knew that his troubles did not spring from himself, i.e. from his own sins, and it was this which ultimately led him to seek their origin and explanation in God. He does not find his answer by putting God to the test, by apportioning "blame" to God. His solution lies in acceptance of the mysterious otherness of God. The answer is not to demand that the whole thing be seen in terms of himself and his wants, but to be open to God. This rather exalted and challenging solution 15 somewhat spoiled by the ending of the book - Job's earthly fortunes are restored; it is a return to the deus ex machina.
It is left to St Paul in his reflections on salvation in Christ to complete the picture. Jesus saves, not because he calms a storm but because he accepted death out of love for men and in openness to his Father's purposes. We are saved when we can accept what he has done for us, accept it in faith as effective, and so be able to live for him, no longer for ourselves.
What then of our concrete needs? Should we not turn to God in prayer to help us in our troubles? Of course we must. But the challenge of faith is to be able to live for God in Christ, whether our prayers are answered on our terms or not; it is the challenge to accept his purposes rather than our own. We must expect that the new creation will involve the restoration of physical as well as spiritual reality (the healing miracles of Jesus show us that) ; but this will only become real when we can love God without conditions, with the kind of love that Christ himself showed for us.
One solitary memory has survived from my earliest childhood. Perhaps it was the trauma that etched it so deeply on my memory. Even some of the finer details linger on. I wore a single-piece knitted suit on that occasion which suggests that I was then no more, and possibly less, than two years old. I was with my mother in a crowded church, probably at Sunday Mass. At some point my mother left me, presumably to go to Communion. As soon as it dawned on me that my mother had abandoned me, I panicked. I bawled uncontrollably, refusing to -be smothered into silence by a host of soothing women. Eventually, after what seemed to be an eternity - though it could have been no more than a few minutes - my mother returned. She took me in her arms, and still sobbing convulsively, I was carried out of the church and down to a sweet shop, where, with the help of a lollipop, my tears and fears were finally banished. It was my first experience of abandonment. I still melt with compassion every time I encounter, in a large depatment store, a crying child looking for its mother.
I have grown up since then but I have not outgrown my fears. In fact, they too have grown with me. We are fear-ridden animals, and most of our fears are self-inflicted. We are afraid of something all of the time and everything some of the time. And so I grow, afraid of the dark and its ghosts, afraid of dogs and their bites, afraid of failure and its punishment. No sooner had I out-distanced one, than I encountered another, even more chilling. The unconscious is inhabited by many-headed monsters with exotic names, who try to waylay us in our stressful moments. Fear stalks through our adult life, showing its fangs in every crisis. We can be haunted by all sorts of spectres, from the irrational to the impossible, from the unexpected to the improbable, from addiction to bankruptcy, from disgrace to dismissal. We are condemned to surviving battles without ever ending the war.
Christ reads us well. "Do not be afraid!" he told Jairus, who feared his daughter dead. He said the same to Peter when he promised to make him a "fisher of men', to his disciples as he launched them on their mission. Small wonder that he rounded on them when they disturbed his badly needed sleep during a storm, with the rebuke "Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?" "Do not be afraid," God's messenger said, when he broke the news to Mary of her awesome pregnancy and when he persuaded Joseph to assume his responsibilities. When the child was born, the shepherds, first to hear the good news, were warned not to be afraid. Christ came to dispel fear as well as darkness. And, when he quit the tomb, the message he left there for his disciples was not to be afraid. Two thousand years later, when panic swept like a forest fire through the United States, a president tried to calm his people with the same message. "You have nothing to fear," Roosevelt told them, "except fear itself."
Inside each of us, their is a little lost child who is afraid of being abandoned. God does not sleep through our crises. Unlike my mother, he does not leave us, even momentarily.
Today we have one of the several stories in the gospel where Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee. With all of our own personal storms in life, this is a story with which most of us can identify.
We have seen graphic pictures of hurricanes, twisters and tornadoes in different parts of the world. The one thing that strikes me at such times is just how powerless and helpless the people are. No matter how much warning they got, when the twister arrives, they just have to breathe deeply, hold their nerve, and hope it soon passes. There is absolutely nothing they can do. Today's gospel would put Jesus right there in the eye of the storm.
Even though Jesus was with them, they still ran into a storm. As a matter of fact, right at the height of the storm, Jesus was sound asleep! His presence with them doesn't mean that they would never encounter difficulties; it does, however, mean that, when the difficulties do arise, all they have to do is to call on him. This is literally true in the lives of every single one of us. He is quite aware of the storm, but he leaves it to us how we choose to deal with it. Of course, we will have problems; but we also have a solution. "Ask, and you will receive."
Jesus must have had an extraordinary depth of peace and inner connectedness with the Father. He was in a deep sleep in the midst of a storm. He had really closed down, no doubt because of exhaustion. In an earlier stage of my life, I used imagine Jesus lying there, with eyes closed, but he was peeping out under his eyelids to see how the apostles were dealing with the situation! Today, I think of Jesus being there with them; they have seen enough evidence of his care for them; if the storm comes, he'll sleep away because by now they should know what to do.
And they did know what to do. They called on him; he woke up, calmed the storm, and then began to show them that their fear came from the fact that they didn't really trust him to care for them. From a human point of view, it's hard to blame them! And yet, this is the strength of faith and trust that Jesus called for. When Peter was sinking as he tried to walk on water, Jesus told him he had little faith or he wouldn't be so afraid.
A young Indian boy approached manhood and, as was the custom with his tribe, he had to undergo several tests to prove his bravery, before acceptance into the fighting braves of the tribe. He was brought out into the middle of a jungle and left there alone all night. He was terrified. Every leaf that fell, every branch that creaked, every movement in the underground caused his heart to pound. He never knew a night could be so long. On several occasions, he would have run away, but where does one run in a jungle in the middle of the night?
After what seemed an eternity, the light of dawn began to filter through the trees. In a relatively short time his eyes got used to the growing light, and soon he was able to see clearly. He moved from where he was and as he approached the nearest tree he was amazed to find his father standing there with a gun.
He had stood there on guard all night long. The young lad's instant response was to think, "If I had known that my father was watching over me like that, I would have slept soundly all night."
When you die, you will discover that your Father was standing guard
there all the time.
Wis 1:13ff. God does not delight in the death of the living. All that he does is wholesome, and he intends us to enjoy a blessed immortality.
2 Cor 8:7ff. Paul asks his well-off Corinthians to contribute to a collection for the poor in the Church at Jerusalem.
Mk 5:21ff. Two separate miracles of Jesus are told in a single story: the cure of a woman with a haemorrhage, and the raising of the daughter of Jarius.
Theme: Healing is part of the church's ministry. Many of our wounds are self-inflicted; not all of them are physical. Faith can cure them all, just as it did the two people are healed in today's gospel.
God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal. God created us for incorruption, and
made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy
death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
For his anger is but for a moment;
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
O Lord, be my helper!"
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Now as you excel in everything-in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure
on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present
abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need,
in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The
one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did
not have too little."
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in er body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house
to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?"
But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue,
"Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him
except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came
to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people
weeping and waiing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why
do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping."
And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the
child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where
the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha
kum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately
the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age).
At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them
that no one should know this, and told them to give her somethin to
- for parents who have lost a child, and spouses who have lost their partner, that God will help to fill the void in their lives.
- for even greater works of charity and outreach by this community, to reflect Christ's own love towards the needy.
- for those who are ill, that their faith and the love of their friends may help them recover their health.
- for all Christians, that they may have faith in the healing power
Thoughts for 13th Sunday, B
When we consider the appearance, the outlook of people we come in contact with, their talents, their behaviour, their values, there is one thing that must surely strike us, and that is how unique each person is. How often does one meet twins who are identical in every physical way, and yet are totally different, mentally and character wise. But there is one thing which we all have in common. In every one of us there is a flaw, an imperfection, call it the result of upbringing, of environment, or in religious terms the product of original sin. We used to describe this as the predominant fault, and it can be the result of pride, greed, lust, anger, envy, gluttony, or laziness. And the sad thing is how the lives of even good people can become dominated by some inordinate, uncontrollable craving or passion, to the extent that they want only this - live only for this.
The Bible tells us that "it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God," because, as the French writer, Jacques Maritain, said "those loving hands always give us what we want," what we set before us as the goal to be striven for. Hell is there for our free preferring, or heaven is there for our taking, together with every help needed to attain it. And the real horror of the state of hell lies in the fact that the soul in hell, although well aware that it is still loved with an infinite love by God, is no longer able to fulfil itself by returning that love. It is completely introverted, with no room, no consideration for others.
In today's complete gospel, we have the story of two cures, seemingly different on the outside, but actually closely related. The first, which is omitted from the short gospel, is about the woman with the issue of blood. For the Jews blood was the principle of life, and for this woman the slow loss of blood probably made her feel that life was slipping away from her. The second story tells how the breath of life was restored to a child who had already lost it. The first cure was brought about because of the faith of the woman herself; the second through the faith of the father and friends. In both there is the utter and sincere conviction that Jesus, and only Jesus can cure, that Jesus really wishes life for people. The question is, what is this life which Jesus wishes for us?
Obviously Christ did not come to remove physical death; it still remains the destiny of each of us, although the Easter Jesus has removed the sting of death. Rather is the life which Christ offers us a moral, a spiritual, an enduring life with God. "God formed people to be imperishable," the first reading tells us, "God does not rejoice in the destruction of the living." When the Book of Wisdom mentions death being repelled by the power of God, we must remember that this book was written before belief in a life hereafter emerged. What the author has in mind is not physical death, but rather spiritual collapse - eternal separation from God. In the Book of Revelation this spiritual death is called the "second death." Those who undergo this death must abandon hope, for there is no possibility of a new resurrection.
Revelation states it graphically. "But as for cowards, the faithless, perverts, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, the place for them is the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death" (21:8). The fire and sulphur mentioned are of course symbolic. The devil would alienate us from God, and make us die the second death, the death of the spirit, but Christ by assuming our humanity, can bring us back to God. Physical death, as it appears in today's gospel story, is a symbol of the destruction of this spiritual life; it is the ultimate sign of man's alienation from God. Just as the little girl in the gospel was completely unable to help herself, so are those persons who say, "I will not serve," people who, like alcoholics, drug addicts and such, become utterly self-centred, spending all their time and energy trying to satisfy their selfish desires.
Whether we" are dragging our feet in our pursuit of this spiritual life, which Christ wishes for us, or whether we have attempted to turn our backs completely on it, we must become convinced that Jesus and Jesus only can help us. Let us then renew our faith in our Saviour until it becomes a faith that will move mountains. Let each of us take away and ponder over this thought today - "God wants me to love him not because God needs it, but because I need it."
1. The Book of Wisdom takes up the idea of Genesis 1 that humankind was made in the image of God (see Gen 1:27.) But whereas the Genesis account of creation applied the term to human existence as such, the Book of Wisdom confines it to a special quality of existence which causes humans to act in a God-like way which makes them "friends of God" (see Wis 7:26-27.) Living as a Friend of God means that we will act towards the world as God acts, seeing it as "good" (Gen 1:10) and therefore being concerned for its welfare rather than being involved in its exploitation. What is stressed in equating the serpent of Genesis 3 with the devil is the necessity of the avoidance of evil in one's life if one is to be a friend of God. A link can be made from today's first reading with the evil we are doing to the "world's created things" in which "no fatal poison can be found" in themselves. If we continue to pollute the world we will have poisoned many of its resources for ever more. How can we then continue to be called frinds of the Creator God who "takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living?"
2. Paul would be an asset to any fund-raising programme. His method is simple: first praise, then appeal and lastly threaten. But his principles are valid for all time; we have no right really to what we do not need. Today's second reading could be used as an appeal to help the disaster areas of the world. As Gandhi said: "I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use and keep it, I thieve it from somebody else. In India we have got 3,000,000 people having to be satisfied with one meal a day, and that meal consisting of unleavened bread containing no fat in it, and a pinch of salt. You and I have no right to anything that we really have until these three million are clothed and fed better. You and I, who ought to know better, must adjust our wants in order that they may be nursed, fed and clothed."
3. The miracle stories show Jesus healing either by touch or by a word. Both methods are present in the two miracles of today's gospel reading but there is a certain poignancy in the touch story as it is not Jesus who consciously touches the woman but she him. The stealth of the woman with the "issue of blood" in trying to touch Jesus without anyone being aware of it was occasioned by the ignorance of those times which considered that a woman in her condition was ritually unclean and anyone she touched was also rendered unclean. The fact that she touched him does not bother Jesus. The remarkable fact of Jesus being able to break through the taboos of his time could provide the basis for a discussion of present day taboos, especially in relation to women, and what they are doing to the human race in general and the Church in particular.
A theme which links the first reading and the Gospel is enunciated in the first line of the text from the Book of Wisdom: "God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living." The human experience of death is then explained as the result of the devil's activity, an idea which anticipates St Paul's connection between sin and death. According to the Book of Wisdom, death is not the will of God. God brings man into existence not so that he may die and disappear again (that would be monstrous), but precisely so that he might live. The Book of Wisdom does admit that God's purpose was frustrated, but the Gospel reminds us that God restored his purpose; he restored life instead of death through Jesus. For the believer death can now be seen as a sleep, not an endless one but one which leads to the dawn of a new life.
What is to be taken from this is the note that hope is the remedy to our difficulties, a hope based on what Jesus actually achieved.
The homilist might develop this, not so much in terms of hope in individual resurrection, but more in terms of its value as an inspirational force in this life. We need to see a future for all men and the world as part of God's promise to restore all things.
The future of the world depends on the efforts of men of vision who will guide the governmental decisions of the nations. If there is to be a future, the vision demanded is a positive one which will motivate people to co-operate and to share resources. There is a radical need for input from the developed nations to those which are still on their way up from their knees. One of the factors which militates against this drive for equality is not so much a crass self-serving mentality as a fear that all efforts to remedy the situation are doomed before they start. There is the unspoken fear that the poor nations may drag down the developed ones to their own level of deprivation, the fear that there may not be enough to go around.
This kind of fearful thinking often parades under the name of realism, arguing that we (in the developed nations) must not damage our own economies in helping others. If we were to do this we would then be no longer able to help. Some of this is realism, but more of it is self-concern, a lack of real awareness of the need for a more just and equal distribution of the resources of the world.
We need to overcome our fears that the world can provide enough for us all. Today's text from the Book of Wisdom is a help with its reminder that "the generative forces of the world are wholesome." This kind of confidence only comes from faith in God's restoring power. We can be motivated to act on it by the example of Jesus, as St Paul reminds us in the reading from 2 Cor. Jesus took the risk of sacrifice in his life and it was precisely this which brought new life and the possibility of a future for us all.
Some years ago, I lived in a presbytery just across the street from a doctor's surgery. The doctor had an excellent reputation and people queued up all day long to consult him. One morning there was an urgent knock on my door. When I opened it, the caller said: "Come quickly, Father. A man has just dropped dead on the pavement outside." Grabbing the sacred oils, I rushed out.
Sure enough, a man was lying prostrate on the footpath. I anointed him conditionally, as there is a presumed interval between real and apparent death. A small group of people encircled the body. We were only a few yards from the door of the doctor's surgery. I was struck by the cruel irony of it. Had he survived these few extra yards, his life might have been saved by the doctor. As I straightened up, I made this observation aloud to the hushed bystanders. "You have it all wrong, Father," a woman replied. "He was just on his way out from the surgery." Whatever the doctor's recommendation was, he took it with him to the grave. Doctors, as they say, bury their mistakes.
In today's gospel, the woman with the twelve-year-old haemorrhage had undergone "long and painful treatment under various doctors', without getting better. Of course, medicine then and up to quite recently, was fairly primitive. For most of history people prayed for real miracles to cure their infirmities. In the Middle Ages, death stalked everywhere, not least in pestilence-ridden cities. War was endemic and hygiene unknown. Town and country swarmed with the deformed, the maimed, the crippled and the blind. Death ran riot throughout Europe during the horrific period of the bubonic plague, aptly called the Black Death. Nothing stood between the individual and his eternity except God. The centre of every church was its shrine containing relics of the saints. People flocked to these shrines in search of cures. Many travelled great distances to Rome, to the Holy Land, to Compostella, believing, like the woman with the haemorrhage, that it would suffice to touch an important relic to restore them to health. Compotella claimed to have such a relic, no less than the remains of St James, who had watched Christ raise the daughter of Jairus to life. One could hardly come closer to the healing power of Christ than that.
But the world has changed dramatically since then. In our own time cures have been discovered for almost every human ailment. We have all become fervent believers in the "miracles of modern medicine." Clinics have replaced churches for the stricken. The few relics that have survived serve as embarrassing reminders of our naïve past. But was it all that naive? Christ claimed nothing else for these two miracles than the faith of the participants. "Your faith has restored you to health," he told the woman who was cured of her haemorrhage. All that separates us from her is the depth of our faith. Even modern medicine, in spite of its extraordinary successes, is rediscovering the importance of the patient's faith in his cure. Who knows? That man who went out the surgery door might not have stepped so abruptly into eternity, had faith in his doctor not faltered. That, like the doctor's prescription, is a secret he took with him.
Christ, now as then, can cure our sicknesses. All he needs is our faith. Of that, Lourdes is proof, if proof were needed. God does trail his coat in our shabby little world. With a little faith we could find it; with a little courage we could touch it. "Do not be afraid," he says to us, as he said to Jairus, "only have faith."
Most of us who grew up in the country would probably be familiar with "cures." In my part of the country, every second person had a "cure" for something, from whooping cough, to measles, to sprains. It was an interesting admixture between religion and superstition. The "gift" was passed down in the family. If a woman married a man with the same surname as herself, so that she did not have to change her name, she was also deemed to have a "cure" for some complaints. The interesting thing to think about is that the sick person came to the other, expecting a cure; and, indeed, the cure almost always followed, if for no other reason than that the measles had run their course, and went away anyhow. I am not, of course, comparing today's gospel to the country cures of my early childhood; but I notice the common thread - everybody is looking for a cure for something and, one day, they hear about someone who can cure them.
There are two conditions for a miracle and both are present twice over in today's gospel. The first condition is to have tried everything, and nothing is happening. The second condition is to look to Jesus as someone who can do for me what I cannot do myself. A miracle is not just something I cannot do. There are millions of things I cannot do that other people can. A miracle is something that only God can do, and he cannot work the miracle unless I admit my powerlessness, and get out of the way.
Jairus was an unusual man. He was leader of the local synagogue, and he took a great risk by coming to Jesus. He loved his daughter, and her welfare was all that mattered. On his way home, he got word that his daughter had died. He still believed, against all the odds, when Jesus told him, "don't be afraid. Just trust me." An unusual and extraordinary man indeed. He must have had a wonderful richness of love, humility, faith, and every other gift that enabled him to come to Jesus in the first place, and to trust him to the end.
I love the little woman in the middle of today's gospel. She is so typical of many beautiful people I have known. She is suffering quietly, and over a long period of time. Unlike the cripples or the blind, she gets no sympathy because her suffering is secret. In those times, I don't presume the medical care was of any great quality. This little woman had something else, though. She had the humility to know that, while she could do nothing about her condition, God could. There was something about Jesus that convinced her that he was of God. The opportunity presented itself, and it was going to be the only one she would ever get. She stepped out in faith, relying totally on the goodness of the man in front of her. She touched his garments and, as another version of the story tells us, "Jesus felt healing leaving him." In other words, her simple gesture of faith drew healing from him. Jesus commended her for her faith, and she is. presented to us again today as a model of how to approach Jesus.
The waters of the dam had burst their banks, and a veritable tidal wave was heading towards the nearest town. The police drove up the main street with loudspeakers, calling on all people to vacate their homes and to avail of the transport provided for a quick exit out of town. One man, who knew about the danger, refused the offer, because he had prayed to God and he felt it was now up to God to take care of him. Shortly afterwards, the waters came roaring down the main street, and all ground floors were under water. The man was forced to retreat upstairs. He was at a front window when a boat came by, and the people in the boat tried to persuade him to get in the boat and come with them to safety. Once again, the man insisted that he had asked God to help him, and that God would look after him. After some time the water rose so high that the man was forced to climb up on the roof. Soon a helicopter came along but, once again, he refused the offer of help, because God was going to take care of him. Anyhow, surpise! surprise! the man drowned.
He arrived at the gates of heaven in a angry and belligerent mood.
When he met Peter, he asked if there was anybody on duty up here, and
what happens when someone like him asks for help. This puzzled Peter,
who explained that, yes, God always answers prayers, and there seemed
to be something extremely odd about this particular case. He brought
out the logbook of prayer, asked the man his name, and began to check
the records. After a while he looked at the man, and said, "Yes,
there is a record here of your prayers. What puzzles me, though, is
that there is also a record here of several answers to those prayers.
It says here that we sent you the police, a group of people in a boat,
and we even sent you a helicopter. Whatever happened to all that help?
Didn't they show up?" God always answers prayers.
Ezek 2:2-5. God will not leave his chosen people ignorant of their sins. He sends the stern prophet Ezekiel to call them to repent.
2 Co 12:7-10. Paul's mysterious "thorn in the flesh" does not unduly depress him, because "power is made perfect in weakness."
Mk 6:1-6. True to the proverb that no prophet is honoured among his own people, Jesus is rejected by his neighbours in Nazareth.
Theme: As Christians, we are called to be prophets, like Ezekiel
or the apostle Paul.
And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. Their descendants are impudent and stubborn.
I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, "Thus says
the Lord God." Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are
a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among
To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
Our soul has had more than its fill
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the
power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses,
insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ;
for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed
him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who
heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all
this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of
power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son
of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are
not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Then
Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in
their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house."
And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands
on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching.
- that we may have the moral courage to stand up and speak out against injustice in our society.
- for those whose voice is not heeded, that they may be encouraged by the Prophet of Nazareth, who also knew how to speak the truth, even when it went unheeded.
- for all those who are tortured and imprisoned for having the courage of their convictions.
- that we may always be tolerant of those in our communities who
do not conform to our conventions.
Thoughts for 14th Sunday, B
As Christians, it is a good thing now and again to ask ourselves the question, how does it happen that our vision of Christ, our divine Saviour, can be so superficial, and our understanding of the message of salvation, especially in the gospels, can be so vague. The answer surely must be because we have not grown accustomed to meditating in a sincere and earnest way on Christ. Such meditation, it must be said, does not come easily without putting effort into it. We can find it irksome, and our thoughts are prone to switch to other things quickly. But, come to think of it, if Christ regarded our salvation as being so important that he suffered immensely, yet voluntarily, to bring it about, shouldn't we in turn regard that salvation worth the slight sacrifice of learning to meditate on the one who gave his life to achieve it. It is only by slow degrees that our reflection on Christ and all he went through can begin to melt our cold hearts. Doing so once or twice will not bring about this result. It is by mditatng on Christ regularly that, little by little, we grow to appreciate what he has done for us, and a feeling of warmth, and love, and light, develops deep down within us. Without being aware of it we are changing gradually, even as leaves and vegetation emerge in early summer.
We begin to appreciate the depth of the riches, the wisdom, the knowledge of God, the mystery of his decisions and ways, the wonderful changes he can effect in our thinking, in our minds. "Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you," St Paul tells us, "but let your way of behaving be guided by your new mind. Then you will be able to discover the will of God, and know what is good, what is pleasing to him, and the perfect thing to do" (Rom 12:2). This willingness to change we find sadly lacking among the Jews of what was at the time the small town of Nazareth, when Jesus paid a visit to his home place for the first time after the commencement of his public mission. Luke records for us how they even tried to throw him over the cliff outside their town, so great was their rejection of him, and of his preaching elsewhere throughout Galilee and Judaea. Their lack of faith was such that Jesus could not work a single miracle among them, the only place we find this mentioned in the gospels. But ven though people are "defiant and obstinate of heart," as the prophet Ezekiel points out, even though they deliberately close their minds to God's message, nevertheless God does not stop sending his prophets, his witnesses, to proclaim his message to them, whether they listen or not. Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, each was destined to leave a trail of glory behind him, but the pattern of their mission was a hard slog of daily confrontation with the stony unbelief which by and large greeted their efforts - the insults, hardships, persecutions which the second reading today mentions. Jesus, however, showed complete disinterest in men's judgment of him.
To his contemporaries, even to his disciples he remained an enigma, an unknown quantity, which yielded up some of its secrets only in the light of their post-resurrection faith, and demands on this faith were being made continually. And so, Christ today calls us to renew our faith also, a faith which God will bring to fruition in us despite our weaknesses. "I have opened a door in front of you," the Book of Revelation (3:8) tells us, "a door that nobody will be able to close." We see in the gospels (Mt 16) how Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, because while they could read the face of the sky and so forecast the weather, they could not read the signs of the times. They could not see the significance of the events taking place before their eyes; they could not see the door into the kingdom of God, which Jesus was opening.
All of us here this morning have this one thing in common, we are baptised into the one true faith. And as such, each of us is called by God, after the example of Christ, to be his prophet, his messenger, the bearer of some aspect of the gospel, which we give witness to by the kind of lives we lead. Like the great prophets, like the saints, each of us can be a sign, perhaps of unselfishness, of zeal for the spiritual welfare of others, of forbearance in suffering. But if we cease being a sign, then, as some theologians maintain, we can easily become a scandal. We can even be the cause of creating atheism by professing a gospel we do not believe in, by mouthing words which we do not put into practice. We should then this day begin to live for God with mind and faith renewed.
Featured in our readings today are three prophets (Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus) who were rejected and scorned by their own people for the message they brought. Ezekiel is among his own Jewish exiles, taken off by the Babylonians into captivity. Paul is defending himself and his ministry against those who doubt his authenticity and is suffering, "hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ." Jesus is with his own people, in "his native place, accompanied by his disciples." These prophetic voice are met by obstinate people. The message they bear has its origins in God. For example, Ezekiel tells us, "the spirit entered into me .... ." He may be among a defeated nation exiled in a strange land, but God has a message Ezekiel must deliver to the people. God is inspiring and confirming the prophet; as Ezekiel puts it, God "set me on my feet."
Jesus' own ministry begins in a similar way when, at his baptism, "he saw the sky rent in two and the Spirit descending on him like a dove" (Mark 1:10).
Both Ezekiel and Jesus will ask people to hear the truth about themselves. Initially this will require them to face the false and evil choices they have made in their lives. Some truths are hard to hear and Ezekiel, Paul, Jesus and other prophets, most frequently meet opposition. Jesus accused his contemporizes of building beautiful shrines to the prophets their ancestors had killed.
Most frequently, biblical prophets come from among the people to whom they are sent to preach. In today's gospel passage, Jesus' town people highlight how well they knew him and how ordinary he seemed to them. He was a carpenter, they were neighbours to his relatives. They must have been wondering, how could the most High and Holy One speak through such an ordinary person? We could ask the same kinds of questions about the "ordinary things" we say and do every day. Is it possible that God could be using us to reach out to our own; in our own "native place"? Adult and even the elderly will recall things they heard in childhood from their parents that continue to guide them today in their thinking and the choices they make. "My mother always told me .... " "I remember how kind my father was when .... "
The same God who spoke to the exiles in Babylon through Ezekiel, reaches out to us in our own exile through these biblical stories. Where are we in exile?... No longer feeling "at home"? Uncomfortable with what is happening in our lives? Experiencing sickness or infirmities that make us feel like a stranger in our own mind or body? Having beliefs that cause us to be at odds with those closest to us? Feeling out-of-synch with the culture's values and practices? Longing for a home God has promised us? Tired of new reports of war, genocide, disease, poverty, inequality and divisions? Believers listening to these scriptures today know that we are exiles. We are not yet in the place we will someday call "home." In that place will be together with our God where things will finally have been set right. Even as we struggle in our small ways, to restore "rightness" to different people and situations we know that we will see no end to what needs righting.
Ezekiel and Jesus were part of the people they were sent to tell what was wrong and needed correcting. These prophets urged the people to make the necessary changes in their private and public worlds. But prophets are also sent to console the victimsthose on the other sides of the imbalanced scales of justice. To these, prophets offer words from God of comfort and hope; some day things will be set rightforever. Someday people will live in peace and equity. To the overwhelmed, the prophets" voices tell them God has noticed their plight and will do something to address the imbalance. To those in the position to right the balance, the prophets utter God's loving but urgent words and require change in both thinking and acting.
Jesus' neighbours didn't deny his wisdom and mighty deeds. They just couldn't see any further than what was concrete and obvious. They would not accept his message for they couldn't acknowledge that he came from God. How could one of their own be speaking for God, bringing deliverance from sin, opening up an entirely new future? They may have been astonished at what they have seen and heard; but they were not going to change their lives. Had they put faith in Jesus' wisdom they would have heard God's guidance and encouragement. Had they looked deeper into Jesus' cures, they might have caught sight of God reaching out to rescue them. After Jesus died they may have put up a plaque at the entrance to Nazareth, "Jesus Christ was born and raised here." Maybe they eventually names a town square or a gym after him-but they still missed God reaching out to them through this prophet who was "without honor in his native place."
Jesus' contemporaries had somehow been taught to live by skepticism, no longer expecting God to act in their lives; holding God's way of doing things to accustomed standards they themselves had devised. Jesus certainly didn't look or sound like the messiah they were expecting. If we are waiting for God to speak to us in thunder and lighting displays, then we have a long wait.
If we are waiting for someone to lay out a precise road map for our future, telling us what good things we are to do and precisely what missteps we must avoid then we may as well make ourselves comfortable right where we are. The wait for surety is going to be a long one.
Yes, we are called to be prophets and yes, we are ordinary people. If we are going to be prophets in our "native place," then the One who sends us needs to confirm, instruct and feed us. And, of course, God does just that today. What we do at our liturgical celebration is to listen attentively to these scriptural passages, for in them, we hear a word through which the Spirit speaks to us in our exile, "sets" us on our feet and sends us to speak to those around us just as the Spirit did for Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus. We also need to look again at this bread and wine, such simple, ordinary gifts and believe that in them, we are being fed a prophet's food. For what? Well, for one thing, to strengthen our Christian living in whatever exile we find ourselves. Living in exile is such a displaced feeling, it is hard to remember our citizenship is not here in this place, but in God's place. The eucharist is our exile meal, it helps us stay focused and strong, keeps the memory and anticpation of our true home before oureyes and helps us live and speak as witnesses of that "home land."
Each of the readings in today's liturgy of the word raises serious issues for the person who wishes to follow Jesus along the way. A few phrases have struck me in a particular fashion and I would like to reflect on these with you against the background of God's call in Christ to all of us to live according to His way of love, justice and compassion. Ezekiel says that the Spirit of God "set him on his feet." This reminds me that without the Holy Spirit, without grace, without the energy that is God's gracious gift, faith-life is not possible, transformation is not possible, change is not possible, the movement into the wholeness that Yahweh-Shalom offers is not possible. In saying this I remind myself that it is easier to do nothing than to do something, it is easier to be negative than positive, easier to be destructive than creative, and that I am an amalgam of these contradictory tendencies. That is why I have so often been stiff-necked, stubborn and rebellious, even cynical - because free-wheeling refusal o be responsible takes little effort and less understanding. To live the covenant, however, demands awareness; it calls for a commitment to be conscious of grace and of the practical implications of grace that must find expression in real, practical, reconciling, forgiving, growth oriented patterns of life and relationship. Above all, if the gospel today means anything, I must confront my own tendency to judge others, take hurt and offence from them, reject them, and make the scapegoats of my own unrecognised, unaccepted aversions and resentments. I must become acutely aware of the ways in which I perpetuate negativity in my house, among my friends at work - or wherever - lest I become a Pharisee, a Herodian, one of Jesus' own people who thought that reality was how they saw it and so readily rejected him. I must become aware of how easy it is to confuse reality with my own perception of it, blinding myself with my biases and prejudices and preferred viewpoints from the other side that every story, every persn has. With St Paul I need to acknowledge my own "thorn," my own complex, shadow, inferior function, potential for neurotic behaviour; call it what you will, each of us has it! If I really want to be disciple I must learn to rebuild the centre of my existence on God's terms lest I scatter myself and lose myself because I have no ground of coherent meaning on which to base my relationship with reality. This is spirituality, this is what psychology so often discovers we need. May we remember God's grace, may we remember that it precedes us along the way, may we allow it to set us on our feet and make us courageous. May we permit it to energise us for the next few steps on the perilous, wonderful, bright, dark journey to abundant life.
Focusing mainly on the second reading one can accentuate the theme of Christian hope and bring in the other elements easily. In the Gospel and First Reading, reality and escapism come more to the fore but leave a great way forward to deal with hope also. These notes will outline these two possible approaches.
In starting off with the famous thorn in the flesh of Paul, one could open up the implicit meanings of the words chosen by Paul to describe this problem. A thorn, is sharp; it cuts into the flesh; it draws blood, it cannot be ignored; any movement aggravates the wound. Yet a thorn can be pulled out normally, even though this operation may be painful. Whatever we do the thorn demands our attention and we have to deal with it in some way. Using this picture the celebrant may wish to proceed to give examples of various thorns which people carry through life, a difficult temperament, a mixed-up relationship, a nagging hurt, a paralysing fear. The experience of the homilist will furnish other examples which will speak more clearly to himself and consequently be more true in his presentation to his community.
Having set the scene or raised the difficulty he can then show how Paul in fact faced his difficulty. He accepted his problem, whatever it was. However he did not publicise it to everyone. Even here, where he is sharing his difficulties and his graces with the Corinthians he never describes his problem. In prayer he faced this hurt and looked at it in the light of God's loving presence. Like so many of us, Paul did not get a ready answer. He had to implore the Lord a number of times and then he was told that all this was to give him true hope, a hope that was centred on God's goodness and power. From this experience of Paul the homilist could draw a parallel example from his own ministry or life and show how God's way is often to lead us to an awareness and acceptance of our own weakness so that we can receive his goodness. We have to learn to open our hands to take the gift that God wants to give. This image of opening the hands can be used in moving to the second theme of reality-escapism. The picture of a hild clutching a toy and holding on to it can be a powerful image to illustrate the fact that we can cling to something worthless and put all our hope and trust in it, while incapacitating ourselves to receive reality, the really Real, who is the Lord.
The first approach outlined may be too abstract for a parish liturgy, but some elements of it may be helpful. A second approach would be to take the instance of Jesus coming to his own people and their non acceptance of him as a wonder-worker and man with a mission. The big block that they had was that they knew him too well. They were friends of his family. Their physical closeness made it more difficult for them to see the truth of his person. God came to Nazareth in the form of one of the villages and the others could not take it. The celebrant could draw out this basic point by pointing to examples of sickness, accident, disappointment, trouble that eventually led people to find God. Also the day to day routine that can wear us down can be God's channel for getting to us. A possible picture in this area is that of the Eucharist. It is through ordinary bread and wine that God comes to our lives. We pray before the Consecration that the Spirit might descend upon these everyday elements and transform them. Wat we do not notice so much, is the prayer after the consecration that the Spirit might fill our lives and make us the Body of Christ. Our everyday lives are the elements that the Lord uses to make himself present and active. One could exhort folk to accept the reality of their lives and move away from escapes. God is the here and now, not in the "if only." One could encourage people to hope in the value of their lives, humdrum as they may seem.
At a certain period in my life, I grew a beard. It has been my constant companion ever since. But in the early days it did not win instant approval. At the time I was a regular contributor to a television series and when my little goatee made its first appearance on the little screen, it drew an angry response from a number of spectators. They claimed to have been former fans of mine but that now they would no longer follow my programmes. It was as if having altered my chin, I had in some way unbalanced my mind. It was strange that people, who surrounded themselves with the bearded images of their God and his disciples, should have found a bearded priest so unacceptable.
Most societies attach an inordinate importance to conformity which can sometimes, as in the case of my beard, reach down to the finer detail of an individual life. Observance of conventions is often rigorously insisted upon and those who step out of line can sometimes be severely ostracised. Beneath the charm of the rural town or village, there often lurks a lethal intolerance. Which helps to explain why the best of its young seem so eager to escape into the anonymity of the city. They are no places for a prophet, as Christ discovered in his home-town, Nazareth. Least of all, for the home-bred one. There, nobody is welcome who seeks to disturb the time honoured conventions. Truth and religion have long since been domesticated into a cosy conformism. Nobody is allowed question the reigning orthodoxy.
They call us aliens, we are told,
Because our wayward visions stray From that dim banner they unfold.
The dreams of worn-out yesterday. (AE)
Little has changed since the return home of the Nazarene.
Prophets still go unrecognised in their own times and in their own homelands. Some, like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi, had their voices silenced by an assassin's bullet, which conveniently could never be traced further than the manufacturer's tag. Others, like Andrei Sakharov, after a life-time of prison and persecution, die almost within sight of the promised land. Nelson Mandela might live to see it, after spending twenty-seven years in prison. His persecutors could scarcely have served him better. His prison silence resounded throughout the world. Prophets such as these often seem fated to receive the recognition abroad that they are denied at home. And those distant admirers who crown them with accolades, make sure to keep their own radicals on a tight leash. Prophets are uncompromising~ Their demands are not negotiable. But their lives are expendable. Christ's hometown rejection foreshadowed his later condemnation and execution.
We are all called, by our baptismal anointing, to be prophets.
"The spirit came into me and made me stand up," Ezekiel said. We too, like him, should stand up and speak out against the injustices of our time. It matters little whether people listen or not. What is important, as God explained to Ezekiel, is that "they shall know there is a prophet among them."
Today's gospel clearly shows what happens when faith is absent. When faith is absent, the power of Jesus cannot work.
An elderly woman read in the gospel where Jesus said that if we had faith we could move a mountain, and have it cast into the middle of the sea. Before she went to bed that night, she prayed that the mountain opposite her house should move somewhere else. The following morning she came downstairs, pulled back the front curtain, and said, "Ha, I knew it wouldn't'! God will never disappoint you! If you don't expect anything to happen, then, you can be sure that nothing will happen.
The gospels present us with so many apparent contradictions. Extraordinary things happen in such ordinary settings. The weak and marginalised seem to have a power that the people of power don't have. The Jews were expecting a Messiah, but surely not one of their own, someone they grew up with, someone whose family was just like any other family in the village. That certainly would not be their way of doing things and so they concluded it would not be God's way of doing things either.
Not only did the people refuse to accept Jesus, but they were offended by him, and refused to listen. We are all familiar with "begrudgery," when the one who is seen to succeed must be knocked off the perch at all costs. "Just who does he think he is?" are words that are familiar to us. It would require an extra dose of humility to accept the simple fact that someone just like me could be so much more gifted than me. It is as if "If I can't do it, how dare he try." Most of the national heroes were people who were rejected and were not listened to. Most of our best writers were people who had to have their material published abroad, because it was banned at home. Our tabloid newspapers really go to town when they get a story on someone who has made it, and they see an opportunity to knock him off his perch.
Faith is like the good soil in which the farmer sows his seed. If the soil is not suitable, nothing will grow. If the people do not believe, then Jesus can do nothing for them. We all have freewill, and God will never transgress on that. He offers us peace, but we are free to live in misery, and die of ulcers, if we want to! The atmosphere and attitude in Nazareth was all wrong, and the good that was offered was rejected and rendered powerless. Even Jesus was amazed at their lack of faith.
Faith is a response to love. I trust people who seem to have my interests at heart. That is why Jesus asks us to trust him. He used his power to heal and to help, and the response he expected is that people would come to trust him more and more. At Nazareth he was amazed at their unbelief. They failed to understand what he was about. He was different, and they thought that he should not be. He should be like everyone else, and they resented the fact that he seemed different and he acted differently from others. Quite often, in our own lives, we resent others because they are different from us. This is often caused by jealousy, or because they will not conform to what we believe to be the proper way. Intolerance, bigotry, and racism are evidence of such thinking.
I remember being profoundly moved by the unfolding of events in Romania some years ago, at the fall of a tyrannical dictatorship. When the country was opened up, the horror stories began to emerge about the living conditions in orphanages, psychiatric hospitals, etc. Many young people went out from this country to help transform the living conditions of these unfortunate people. I knew one such girl. The first time she entered an orphanage, the two things that struck her most were the stench and the silence. When babies cry and are not attended to, they stop crying. The babies were living in conditions that would be unacceptable in the animal kingdom. Matters of toilet were totally neglected, and the children had no experience whatever of being held, of being nursed. At the approach of an adult the babies were seen to tremble, like frightened rabbits. Mary's job was to sit for hours on end beside one such baby, until the baby got used to her presence. She then, over a long period, worked at drawing closer to he baby, and eventually touching it, without frightening it. It often took several weeks before Mary's big day came. When she approached the baby, and it held up its arms to be lifted, she felt that was one the greatest moments in her life. She shed many a tear while she worked with those babies.
Jesus really wants to touch us, he wants to embrace us, and he wants
to free us from all the evil, the sin, and the human degradation.
Amos 7:12-15. Amos, that great champion of justice, is faithful to the task God gave him, even though at first rejected by those to whom he is sent.
Eph 1:3-14. A hymn of thanksgiving to God for the great spiritual gifts he had poured out on us through Jesus Christ.
Mk 6:7-13. Jesus involves the twelve apostles in his own work and sends them out in twos as his representatives.
Theme: The spirit of frugality is rare in the affluent West. Yet without it, the gospel lacks something. "Take nothing with you," Jesus charged his first disciples. Without this, our message will be lacking in credibility.
Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of
Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy
at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the
kingdom." Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor
a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,
and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to
me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
The Lord will give what is good,
Righteousness will go before him,
(or shorter The Epistle to the Ephesians 1:3-10)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed
us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just
as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy
and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his
children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his
will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on
us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the
forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace
that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known
to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he
set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up
all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we
have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to
the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel
and will, so that we, who were the first to st our hope on Christ, might
live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard
the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in
him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is
the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people,
to the praise of his glory.
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave
them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing
for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their
belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to
them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the
place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you,
as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony
against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should
repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were
sick and cured them.
- that by moderation and simplicity in our use of material things, Christians may give a more authentic witness to the gospel.
- that we may be content to live simply, so that others may simply live.
- that we Christians may offer support to all who strive to redistribute the riches of the world more fairly.
- that by an increase of goodwill, we may help to eradicate poverty
in our local communities and in the wider world.
Thoughts for 15th Sunday, B
I sometimes think that it is a cultural loss to our young generation that it has been more or less cut adrift from the classical literatures that marked the beginning of western civilisation. We look back to the time when the only education available to Irish Catholics was that provided by the hedge schools, and how an Irish poet, Eoghan Rua Ó Sú illeabhá in, for example who was a product of one of these, could write a poem filled with references drawn from Greek and Roman literature. Among the outstanding literary works of Europe, written by its first great poet, Homer, was the Iliad, mainly mythology, which dealt in part with the siege of Troy. It relates how Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, was granted by the god Apollo the gift of being able to foretell events which to everyone else lay hidden in the future. But because she offended him, he decreed also that nobody would believe her predictions. And so the more vehemently she warned against future disasters, the more her prophecies were ignored bythe people. They were not prepared to accept, on her word, that their behaviour, their actions, could in any way have tragic consequences.
We are dealing here with legend, but this story paraphrases for us the reactions, in true life, of the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the warnings of the prophet Amos, in today's first reading. It was a time in the history of the Northern Kingdom when there was a superabundance of court prophets, and without offence to our national advisers, one might refer to them as the spin-doctors of that age. They were kept and paid for by the king, and their task was to put before the people, as being the will of God, what really were the secret ambitions and policies of the king himself. Amos refused to be one of these professional prophets, and in turn they banded against him and told him to go home to his own countrymen in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. "Go away," they said, "we want no more of your style of prophesying." Indeed it was Amos alone, who had been given an authentic message by God for the people.
He tried to get them to change, especially in the field of social justice. And it was also Amos who saw that while, outwardly, Israel seemed thriving and healthy, inwardly, it was stricken with a malignant cancer. For not only was it guilty of social injustices, it was also reneging on its call to be in a special way God's people. There would be no more special privileges for Israel, but only disaster. He delivered this warning from God, "Behold the eyes of the Lord God are upon this sinful kingdom, and I will wipe it off the face of the earth." God scorned those who tried to bribe him by burning incense in the shrine at Bethel one day in the week, while on the other six days defrauding the poverty-stricken of the nation. But like the warnings of Cassandra, Amos" words fell on deaf ears. Much of his message could be applied to our own age, for he criticised the inequalities amongst the people of that era of so much prosperity, the luxurious dwellings and life-style of the wealthy, their selfish and greedy expoitation of the poor, their lack of concern for justice in the community, the way in which the courts were used to evade the law and perpetuate abuses.
Yes, the people displayed all the outward trappings of religion, but in their hearts there was no place for God. God had sent them warnings through his prophets, but he did not force them to comply with his demands. And so it was that Israel slithered down the slope to its own destruction by the Assyrians, never again to attain the status of an independent kingdom. We see all this re-enacted in the person of Christ and his warnings also. But in Christ's time it was not wealth which was the obstacle, but rather a narrow-minded nationalism, which within a generation later would lead to the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself. In the light of this we might try and see what is the predominant failing of our own lives, our own society. Is it the greed which confronted the prophet Amos so long ago?
In the gospel, Christ warned his Apostles that people will refuse to listen to them, even as he himself had been ignored; but their message should not be forced on the people. Indeed the odd thing about Jesus' discourses to the Twelve is that he never tells them what to say to people; rather does he stress the kind of lives they themselves should lead. They must give witness to their own faith by what they do, what they hold precious, so by their example leading others to change too, to accept freely the kingdom of God.
Christ pitied the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Today we see how people become frightened, shattered, lost, all because of the way society is organised, because of their disenchantment with declining standards of behaviour. Secularists, industrialists, trade unionists and others, indeed to a certain extent all of us, quite often pursue a policy of living-for ourselves, of taking all that we can from our environment without thought for the less favoured or for future generations. People are striving, if sometimes unwittingly, for the maximum return for their own efforts, while regardless of the cost to others. If we follow these selfish trends in unthinking fashion, the tragedy is that life will cease to have meaning; there will be no genuine goal to aim at that will beget a feeling of self-fulfilment.
A modern philosopher has put it this way: "Humanity's sickness is that it has nothing to believe in ..., people cannot live without a sense of significance." Humans can never be satisfied if they are regarded merely as economic factors, or cogs in a giant industrial wheel. Let us, for our part, consider this day that people have a spiritual side to them also, and that apart from their material aspirations, they seek, like St Augustine did for twenty years, to acquire spiritual fulfilment as well. Christ, as we see in the gospel, was above all the man for others. He emptied himself of his divine glory and became the servant of the servants of God. But of course, as St Augustine said, "God who made us without our consent, will not save us without our consent." We must be of one mind with him. Furthermore, our consent must not be mere words; it must be accompanied by actions. "My mother and my brothers," Christ told the people, "are those who hear the word of God, and put it into practice" (Lk 8:21).
We can be certain that by striving to do this we can become an influence for good in the community of which we are part. Somebody has said that it is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness. If Christianity could but capture once again the idea of service, that Christ gave us, it would restore once more the meaning of life, and the significance for others of the work we find ourselves doing.
A number of years ago I became aware of a recurring request when people asked me to pray with them or for them. So often the prayer was for peace of mind and heart, but almost invariably I was really being asked to pray that some awkward person might disappear! Certainly, peace of mind and heart is a wonderful thing, but it has to be based on reconciliation which in turn is rooted in conversion. This is the foundation of the Christian healing of life and relationships. We are all sealed with the Spirit, we are all called by God to live according to His plan, but in practice this means understanding that my healing is as much a question of changed attitudes as it is of anything else. Healing takes place in a variety of ways, in a variety of forms, physical, emotional, spiritual, but Christian healing always involves the whole person in the reality of time and place and so involves attitudes and life style as much as aches and pains and trauma. This is something we can all contribute to, each in our own way. Eah of us can learn to use a little oil, a little gesture, a bit of thought, a smile, a hand. We are limited only by our lack of concern, by our fear, by our forgetting that the Spirit is alive in our midst and that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. There is vast untapped potential for good in all of us. It is worth remembering that peace is not just the absence of trouble. It is above all a force, like joy and love, that endows us with the ability to handle life's difficulties and threats. It's origins are in God Himself who is named in the Old Testament as Yahweh-Shalom, God of Peace. But here, peace means wholeness, completeness, health, a presence, a reality that God wants all of us to share with one another. So: prayer with and for each other, bless each other, support each other, forgive each other, touch each other with love and compassion. These are the things that carry healing at their core and they are within everyone's reach. Of course, healing is a process; like growth itself it tkes time, but who is to say what the effect of even a simple gesture or touch may be. I know many stories and so do you. May we all trust God to complete in loving grace what we begin in grace-seeking love.
Periodically, Irish newspapers publish a list of wills. The name and occupation of the deceased is followed by a figure denoting the value of his estate. Invariably, the editor will choose the priest who figures in the upper bracket, to headline the piece. Scarcely the epitaph Christ would have wished for one of his disciples. In Ireland, for almost two centuries, the priest has occupied a dominant - some might say, a domineering - position in society. As a result, he has come in for a fair share of criticism in literature and the media. James Joyce had many predecessors as well as followers. But traditionally, the people were more indulgent towards the short-comings of their pastors. Those who fell victim to the demon drink were more pitied than censored. Those who succumbed to the charms of the fairer sex were more gossiped about than condemned. The harshest criticism was reserved for the money-grasping priest. In this, the ordinary gut-reaction of the people -their sensus fidelium - mirrors accurately the ospel priorities.
Poverty, in the modern world, has almost become a dirty word. We are bombarded almost daily by the media with harrowing accounts of grinding poverty in the Third World. For over a decade, stories of the famine in Ethiopia and the Sudan have reached news saturation-point several times, forcing editors to curtail or withhold coverage for fixed periods. Following that, the Eastern Bloc has drawn media attention, with their lengthening food-queues and empty shelves. The First World too has its poverty stories, with statistics showing the growing numbers living below the poverty line in the "rich man's club." No great city in the Western world would be complete without its poverty belt where people in the low- or no-income sector are confined within their poverty trap. The resulting plague of crime and drugs has obliged governments, in fluctuating bouts of enthusiasm, to declare war on poverty. Poverty, like disease, must be eradicated.
Small wonder if the virtue of poverty has become tarnished with the same brush. Unlike our ancestors, we are not given to making distinctions. In the popular mind, the virtue stands indicted like its demographic namesake. Even in economic terms, this is little short of disastrous. The reality will continue to ravage the Third World, as long as the First World fails to practise the virtue. They will remain poor, as long as we fail to share our largesse with them. In certain cases the situation is even worse. Recently, the story broke of an Italian shipping company dumping its cargo of dangerous toxic waste in an underdeveloped African state. Having plundered that continent for centuries to raise our standard of living, we now have the gall to fill its empty belly with our waste.
If the Christian West wishes to continue to preach the gospel in Africa and elsewhere, it badly needs to give a more authentic witness to it. If we wish to establish the kingdom of God on earth, we should remember that Christ began its charter with the words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." When he called his disciples, he made only one demand: That they leave everything to follow him. The only one who refused his-call, the rich young man, did so because "he had many possessions." As he was sending them out to preach, his first words, as recounted in today's gospel, were: "Take nothing with you." And the priest who left behind him as the fruit of his labours a tidy nest egg, failed spectacularly to carry out his Master's injunction.
In today's gospel, Jesus passes on the baton of spreading the news to his apostles. It is interesting to read his instructions, and to read what happened when they obeyed those instructions.
A friend of mine is involved with a certain political party. When it comes to election times, he works from dawn to dusk. Each of the canvassers are briefed in the party manifesto, with all of their policies, and with answers to all the questions they expect to be asked on the doorsteps. They come together once or twice a week to compare notes and to report on progress. I personally could not possibly do this kind of work, but he seems to thrive on it. I think the secret of his enthusiasm and drive is that he has a passionate belief in what he is saying, and he is never disquieted when others don't see things as he sees them. He just goes on to the next door, and keeps going.
At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that "Jesus came to do and to teach." In other words, he himself did the thing first, before asking anybody else to do it. For example, it was after washing the disciples" feet that he told them they should wash each other's feet. Today's gospel begins with Jesus going from village to village, teaching. He then calls his apostles, and commissions them to continue his work.
It is his work, but he will provide the power. "The kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours forever and ever." If I supply the power, I'll be tempted to steal some of the glory. He sent them out in twos, by way of mutual support for each other. Later on, both Judas and Peter found themselves alone, away from all the others, and we know what happened to them. This mission was to be a school of experience for them. They were to trust him, and take nothing with them. "The labourer is worthy of his hire," Jesus remarked in another part of the gospel. He sent them to teach others what he had taught them. They were not to take responsibility for whether others accepted or rejected them.
Their task was to teach, to call, to offer, and the listeners would be responsible for their response. It was a good experience for the apostles. Imagine how they felt when they discovered they had the power to Cast out demons, and to place their hands on the sick and heal them. It was Jesus working through them, of course, but it must have done wonders for their faith. They had seen Jesus work miracles, and now they were experiencing that same power working in and through them. That is the intended experience of every Christian.
Do you really have a sense of being called? If you don't, then you certainly will not have any sense of being sent. We are not all called to be evangelists. It is not a question of standing on a butter-box in Hyde Park. It is a question of a simple chat over a cup of coffee, of giving witness through my actions, of speaking the word when the opportunity arises. It is not unusual to be with one or two others when the question of religion comes up. I may be a moral coward, and may be afraid to open my mouth. "Those who deny me before people, I will deny before my Father in heaven," says Jesus.
There was a programme some years ago on an American television station, where three or four people were given trolleys in a supermarket, and given a certain time to fill them with groceries. The winner was decided as the one who had the highest bill at the checkout. A whistle blew, and the stampede began! They bumped into each other, items missed the trolley as they were thrown from a distance, and other items were discarded in favour of a more expensive item discovered. When the few minutes were up the whistle blew again, and they made their way to the checkout. As they waited to have their goodies checked, they looked into each other's trolleys, they saw things there that they had missed, they were annoyed with themselves at some of their stupid choices, etc.
Now let me present that scenario again, except, this time we will give a trolley to a committed Christian. We have the whistle, the stampede, and everything all over again, except that our Christian friend is seen to act differently. He strolls along at his ease. He puts a loaf of bread, some milk, butter, and sugar in his trolley. He picks up an item that fell from one of the other trolleys and puts it back in the trolley. The final whistle blows and they arrive at the checkout. Immediately, our friend gets everybody's attention. Their first reaction is a combination of mockery, puzzlement, and anger. One of them said, "Who let you out? Did nobody tell you what this is all about? Why are you laid-back, and why didn't you go for it, like the rest of us?" The young man smiled, and replied, "My Father owns the supermarket!'
Being out there in the world, giving Christian witness, is supposed to make a major difference.
Liturgical and Scriptural Reflection:
It can hardly be said that your typical up-to-date parish travels light. It has voice mail and a computer web page and seventy or so organizations and several committee meetings and a full parking lot every night and big athletic and drama programs and a large lay staff and a budget that runs to six or even seven figures every year. It's not exactly the sort of community you could pick up and move across the country at a moment's notice. None of this is necessarily bad. However today's liturgy reminds us once again that we must not permit ourselves to become so deeply involved with our means as to forget our ends. Which are . . .?
Once upon a time, a parish council decided to form an evangelization
committee. After all, they believed that the gift of Good News ought
to be shared with others. So they spent a year planning how they would
reach out to those within the Catholic community who did not attend
Church services and also considered ways they might appeal to those
who were not of the Catholic faith. They formed sub committees on a
variety of topics. The sub committees met every other week and they
submitted their reports to the whole council at the monthly council
meeting. Unfortunately, the subcommittees spent much of their time on
logistics with little attention to the content of their vision and how
it might meet the needs of those who did not attend church services.
So when they began offering programs based on their plan, they were
disappointed that so few new people showed up. Most of the attendees
at these programs were the same folks who came to everything the parish
offered. The pastor finally called the planners togetherfor an evaluation
meeting. When the planners began to express their dismay at the lack
of newcomers to their programs, the pastor asked if perhaps they ought
to consider why people were not attending. Could it be that in the planners
eagerness to present the Good News, they overlooked the fact that they
paid so much attention to the details of the programs that the substance
The Good News became buried?
Jer 23:1-6. The shepherds who neglected the flock are severely blamed; but God promises to send shepherds who will care about his sheep.
Eph 2:13-18. By his death Jesus broke down the wall that divided Jews from Gentiles, and he now unites all peoples as children of the one Father.
Mk 6:30-34. A nice example of Jesus' care for his apostles as well as his compassion for the people who were "like sheep without a shepherd".
Theme: Much of the vitality of the early church came from its hermit tradition, seeking God in silence and prayer. Our "groupies" must rediscover the value of a certain solitude in the search for God.
"Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: "It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings," says the Lord.
"Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing," says the Lord.
"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise
up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal
wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In
his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this
is the name by which he will be called: 'The Lord is our righteousness.'"
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
You prepare a table before me
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought
near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has
made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that
is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments
and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in
place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups
to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility
through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off
and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access
in one Spirit to the Father.
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had
done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place
all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going,
and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat
to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized
them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived
ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion
for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began
to teach them many things.
- that we may find times and places in our lives for quiet reflection.
- that contemplative orders in the church will continue to thrive and to nourish the Christian life of all of us.
- for those living alone, those in solitary confinement, and for hermits everywhere, that God may fill their solitude.
- for those who teach religion to young people, that they may attend
not only to doctrine but to the needs and talents of their students.
Thoughts for 16th Sunday, B
Many years ago I got the opportunity of visiting St. Petersburg, the then named Leningrad, in Russia. Gorbechof was the Russian leader at the time. The communist system was still in operation, although a mild form of it. There was much talk of glasnost and peristrika. My main memory of my visit was that every thing was scarce and to get anything you had to cue for ages.
Our small group was assigned a guide and as the week wore on he began to trust us more. At one stage he told us that in the Russia of those days work was a place you went to, not a job that you did. Anyhow you could not work productively in state run places - and nearly every thing was run by the state - because either the tools or spare parts needed for the work were not available. Moreover people had become accustomed to waiting and you get paid whether you worked or not. He agreed that this was wrong and not sustainable as a system, but it had one great advantage. It meant that you had plenty time and energy for what he called the four Fs - family, friends, festival and fun.
Now that the soviet system has collapsed and that they have taken on the ways of the West, the presumption is that like us, all the emphasis will be on the four Ps: profit, performance, productivity and pay. Recently I said to a friend of mine that when I came to Bray over thirty years ago I knew nearly everybody in his outfit. Now, I hardly know anybody. I asked, is that just because I am now much older? Yes, he said. You are older but there is more to it than that. All the emphasis nowadays is very much on profit, productivity, not so much on family and friendship.
Really it is a question of keeping the balance between the four Fs and the four Ps. We need them both. We need profit and productivity, otherwise the system collapses. But we also need time for family and friends, if humanity is not to go out the door.
In today's Gospel the apostles had returned from their first mission, full of excitement. There were so many coming and going that the apostles had no time even to eat. Jesus understood what they needed. 'You must come away to some lonely place, all by yourselves and rest for a while'. This story clearly exemplifies the necessity to take time off from the constant routine of duties. The same message is built into the story of creation. God worked for six days and on the seventh day he rested. If God needs a rest, surely we do also.
Fifteen hundred years ago the rule of St.Benedict gave the formula for good living: the threefold rhythm of prayer, work and recreation.
Our danger with the Celtic Tiger Ireland is that we are too busy,
always rushing and have no time for pause and reflection. And so, the
importance of the proper use of days off, holidays and Sunday. Sunday
should be a day not just for Mass, but if at all possible different
from every other day. Even a meal out with family and friends is so
important. Obviously you could have food at home and in that way save
money. But that is not the point. There are greater things than money
to save: your marriage, your friendships, and your sanity. The words
of Jesus still make a lot of sense: 'you must come away to some lonely
place all by yourselves and rest for a while'.
The theme of the shepherd links together today's first reading, Responsorial psalm and gospel reading, and it is implicit in the second reading. In the wake of the failure of the leaders of Israel, the false shepherds, God promises, through the prophet Jeremiah, to raise up a true shepherd who would gather together his scattered people. In the Gospel, Jesus functions as such a true shepherd. Abandoning his own personal plans, he gives himself to God's leaderless people, gathering them together by his word of teaching. The second reading highlights how this work of shepherding reached its climax on the cross. It was, above all, from the cross that he began to draw all people to himself, and, through himself, to his Father. The good shepherd, in laying down his life on the cross for his flock, brought them together by the power of his love, breaking down walls of hostility, creating unity and peace, reconciling all to each other and to God. The promise of God in the first reading to raise up a true shepherd is ulfilled as Jesus is raised up on the cross.
The homilist might develop the rich theme of the Good Shepherd as the one who lays down his life for his flock. The true leader is the one who empties himself or herself in loving service. Later on in Mark's gospel, Jesus was to teach his own disciples: "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last and the servant of all" (Mk 9:35.) In response to the request of James and John to sit at his right and left, Jesus said: "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all" (Mk 10:44.) These are words which are addressed to all disciples. To be a disciple of the Good Shepherd is to travel the way of the Good Shepherd, the way of self-emptying and self-giving, the way of placing the needs of others before our own, as Jesus did in today's Gospel.
In baptism, we are each given a share in the kingly office of Christ, we are called to share in the work of Christ the king, the shepherd. From baptism we are called to be leaders, shepherds after the heart of Christ. We often bemoan, in a general way, the lack of leadership in State or Church. But, do we take seriously enough our own baptismal calling to leadership and shepherding? As disciples of the Good Shepherd, we are ourselves called to be shepherds, called to serve as he served, to give as he gave. This will involve our sharing in Christ's work of making peace, breaking down barriers, destroying hostility, creating unity, working for reconciliation between all who are divided. The scope for such leadership and shepherding is endless. For many, such work will begin in their own homes and families. Peace in the home, based on mutual service and self-giving, enables the members of the home to be effective peace-makers in the wider society, in the world of industry, commerce, business, education and churc relations.
We will be effective shepherds, wherever we find ourselves, to the extent that we allow ourselves to be led by the Good Shepherd, listening to his voice, following his way (Alleluia verse.) Only true disciples can be true shepherds; only if we have learned to become a disciple can we be faithful to our baptismal calling to leadership.
In many areas of life today there is a crisis of authority. The simple fact of holding a leadership position no longer ensures loyalty and unquestioning obedience. The successful leader today is one who can win respect and generate trust, and for this one needs respect for people's dignity and rights, sensitivity to their feelings and genuine concern for their well-being.
Shepherds, according to Jeremiah, are responsible for others in their care; ones who guide the people along the right path (Psalm), and have compassion on them in their weakness (Gospel). We often think of this image as applying only to our bishops - who claim the official title as "pastors" in succession to the apostles, or to our priests, the "local pastors" - but in fact the role of "shepherd" at one level or another, applies to all who hold positions of leadership. We are all invited today to examine, in the light of the readings, how we carry out our leadership potential.
The "shepherds" condemned by the prophet in today's reading were the princes responsible for the nation's welfare, who failed to live up to their responsibilities or to fulfil their duties worthily. Those with similar responsibility today might be political figures, ministers and government officials at various levels, who have the difficult task of ensuring a nation's well-being, defending the rights of citizens, and of providing for their needs, insofar as possible. The "shepherd" image indicates that the authority of such people is not to be equated just with the ability to impose their will on those they govern. A shepherd's role is ultimately one of service, not of dominion: to set a good direction and enable a community to live harmoniously together, with dignity and with a sense of personal fulfilment.
In church, the term "shepherd" applies mainly to ecclesiastical leaders and sometimes in the past Church leaders carried the shepherd image too far, treating their people more like sheep that have to be prodded along than as intelligent human beings whose wisdom and commitment should be respected. Today, however, Church authorities can no longer adopt a "Father knows best" attitude. The clergy cannot rule by edict, but must focus on winning minds and hearts, and communicate an inspiring vision of Christian living, suited to our times. They must trust the maturity and responsibility of their people, if they want to promote a greater participation in Church life and activity.
Besides the shepherds of Church and State who hold official leadership
roles, many others must in practice be shepherds at a humbler level
and in more humdrum situations. Parents and teachers are the most obvious
examples of this. It is they who help to develop a child's character,
to lay the foundations for growth into Christian maturity. They communicate
values by which young people can live, and foster faith and commitment
that can grow over the years. For this they need the sensitivity and
compassion that characterised Jesus as portrayed in today's Gospel.
Taking the First Reading as a basis one could move in to a rich picture of the shepherd in Israel, leading, guiding, providing for his flock and protecting them from wolves, keeping them together and searching out the lost. Such an image is powerful and evocative. One could develop this image in a deeper way by showing that kingship was often pictured as an exercise of shepherding a people. It is to kings that Jeremiah is speaking. From stressing either image one could develop the theme of unity among the people, a theme for which there is rich material in the second reading from Ephesians. Here the topic of diversity and richness of traditions could be taken up and practical ecumenism preached. The contrast between the peacefulness of the image of the shepherd and the strife caused by religious divisions in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland could be brought out. Every area knows its own divisions. Apart from this blatant negation of the desire of the Lord for Unity, one could show the need for a real undestanding of diverse ways of living one's attachment to Jesus. The words of the Ephesians speaking about being far away and being brought near fit this effort. All are to draw close to each other in understanding. But this process can come about only through effort and pain, the blood of the Cross. If the Churches are to deepen in their mutual relations there is need for a costly effort to understand each other's ways of thought and doing things. But the image of the Cross can be developed further in showing that through the Cross Jesus entered into a totally new and fuller life with his Father. In a similar way the effort at reconciliation between Christians will lead to a fuller life in the Unity of access to God. The goal of the process is to become one Body with Christ, in the free gift of peace and joy.
Another option for the preacher stemming from the shepherd image is to speak about loneliness. So many people in the modern world have little meaning in their lives, and in the barren wastes of such an existence they turn to alcohol, drugs, sex and other forms of escapism. Far from suggesting a harangue on these poor unfortunates, a easy way to give an eloquent sermon, I would suggest that it is to such as these that the Gospel and first reading today may apply. Whatever pain drives them to such abuses is the object of the Lord's compassion and it brings him to teach them a better way of life. It is because they have been scattered and battered that Yahweh of the Old Testament promises to pasture them, and to care for them personally. Since they have no justice of their own, He himself promises to be their justice. Their need is his opportunity. In this context the preacher will know the problems of his own area and might suggest to his flock how they might give an example by their lives. He might also fostersome response of compassion. So often people respond to people who are in difficulties by condemning out-rightly. In themselves they are afraid of the weakness they see in the other and the easiest way out is to condemn. I think the Gospel gives us a golden opportunity to foster encouragement and understanding for those less fortunate who find themselves in a barren wilderness searching for the Truth and Life. Their cries may be strange and frightening, but if we have Jesus, we have some form of response, if not all the answers, and hopefully we might have his compassion as well,
The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them: "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.
The action this week follows a good stretch of work on the part of the apostles, which most likely adds up to hundreds of miles of walking, hundreds of hours of preaching, the driving out of many unruly demons, countless anointings and numerous cures from a multitude of illnesses; and all this while adjusting to some significant comfort-level changes (The packing list for this venture? A walking stick, tunic and sandals).
What a wonderful thing it would have been to hear what the apostles reported to Jesus. Triumphs, challenges, fears, surprises, some dust-shaking-protests, and I imagine a slew of down-to-earth, practical questions taking the form of: "This is what happened: "This is how I responded: "What would you have done, Lord? Those of you who have undergone CPE can let your imaginations run wild.
People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.
One wonders how unpredictable this onslaught of visitors was; after all, Jesus multiplied his ministerial efforts by twelve, sending out twelve workers who have touched the lives of hundreds, probably thousands of people. Now they want more. They want to be touched again, taught again, and not they seek cures for their loved ones.
It is no wonder that they have no opportunity even to eat. Meals were important, highly social, leisurely events. They served as opportunities to strengthen bonds via communication and sentiment. Naturally, this particular setting would have been a perfect vehicle to continue their discussions about their missionary journeys. Nevertheless, the crisscross of conversation is continuously cut by a variety of interruptions. Not only can they not converse, they can not even eat!
So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.
This phrase has a distinct rhythm to it which points to a strong desire for solitariness. It can be phonetically broken into preaching beats as such: they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. The desire and need to retreat from the commotion is none too subtle here. Perhaps the only thing we are missing for further punctuation is a night time departure in camouflage tunics.
People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.
It can not be any clearer that Jesus and his apostles need a getaway weekend.
I do not own the unabridged multi-volume work, Etiquette and Protocol, by Ms. Manners, but I do know that it might be slightly insensitive to follow this group of 13 on foot when you hear or assume that they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place for the purpose of rest.
Nevertheless, that is the scene we have. Jesus in a boat with his apostles crossing the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a freshwater lake) which is about 13 miles long, and 8 miles wide. You can see across it and drive around the entire lake in a little over an hour.
If the crowds can see the hazy figures of the 13 in the boat, then the 13 can certainly see the movement of the mob making their way around the shore of the lake keeping one eye on the rocks, bushes and drift wood in their way, and one eye on the boat as they debate with one another exactly where they think they are going to dock.
Some of these people were in such desperate need to have an encounter with Jesus and the 12 that perhaps they would have walked around the Sea of Galilee a dozen times if that is what it required.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
To put it bluntly, God did not make sheep in the same creative instant He willed dolphins, orangutans, and seeing-eye dogs into existence. They are dumb animals who are helpless without direction. Without their shepherd, they are lost; and this image stirs the heart of Jesus.
HOMILY theme: In this season of Summer, thoughts of taking or planning a vacation has certainly crossed the minds of many of our parishioners, and US too! Our bodies perhaps have gotten worn down a bit. Our batteries need to be recharged and a change of schedule, of place and of pace is needed. It is a natural need.
For example, here is a description (downloaded from the Internet): Picture yourself relaxing on the gracious veranda in the warm sun. Cape Cod breezes off the bay bring the fresh perfume of garden flowers. Enjoy the luxury of a soak in your private whirlpool. Sip your favorite beverage on your private balcony overlooking a pretty wooded glade. Rest in a lace canopy bed with romantic fireplace surrounded by delightful antiques. The aroma of early morning coffee beckons you to a sumptuous home-cooked breakfast under the crystal chandelier with light classical tunes in the background. And you're off to another day of golf, beach, sightseeing, Cape Cod crafts, whale watching, biking or hiking the nature trails.
I could do without the canopy bed and antiques, but the rest of it sounds pretty wonderful, eh?
This kind of break will certainly enrich our physical and mental states; but this may be a good weekend to remind both our parishioners and ourselves of the frequent need to enrich our spiritual states. It is as necessary and as natural as planning a vacation. How do we know that? Because Jesus, himself, identifies and acts upon this need in the Gospel today.
He said to them: "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.
The Gospel tells us of the importance of finding a quiet place and a quiet time to be with Christ in prayer. To be spiritually recharged, to refocus, to find our shepherd again, to breath deeply of peace, and to feel the calming and reassuring love of God.
If you are looking for any one of a number of excuses why this just can not happen in your life right now, simply contact the nearest priest or minister. Unfortunately the sea of work in which we find ourselves treading and the appointment book that we find ourselves constantly rearranging in order to squeeze in just one more visit or appointment always provide excuses why we simply can not take this time to spiritually recharge.
We all know that this spells disaster.
Maybe we can not take a week or two in a retreat house right now. Perhaps a lengthy pilgrimage is not possible. But what can we do right now to make a start in the right direction? How about these advertisements?
Picture yourself sitting at the shore of a lake or of the ocean asking the Lord for some direction, for some peace, for some blessings.
Picture yourself taking a drive to the church in which you were baptized and spending some quiet time in front of the baptismal font at which you were made a child of God, thanking God for your life and His goodness.
Picture yourself taking a drive to the church in which you were married and spending some quiet time thinking about the beautiful gift of your husband or wife.
Picture yourself taking a drive to an observation spot which overlooks a beautiful vista and thinking about the beauty that God has placed inside of our world.
Picture yourself laying in a field feeling the warmth of the love of God upon your face and breathing deeply of fresh air.
Picture yourself standing on a bridge overlooking a stream contemplating where God has taken you in this life and reaffirming that you will continue to follow Him where ever he leads you.
These possibilities do not require extensive planning, cost or large chunks of time. They only require a commitment to do it, and the wisdom to see the natural need for spiritual rest.
According to the rag-trade, we come in three sizes: large, medium and small. For some garments, extra large is also available. Whatever our size may be, there is in each of us a little hermit seeking to escape. There are times when we yearn to take ourselves off "far from the madding crowd." When that expression was coined, the world was far more leisured and far less noisy than ours. Now, through all our waking hours, we are bombarded by man-made sound, screaming for our attention. We are the first of our race to be warned about dangerous levels of decibels. The walkman epitomises our age. From the solitary jogger in a city park to the country cyclist, all come "wired for sound." Be it Beatles or Beethoven, it hardly seems fair to our feathered friends, deprived of their two-legged audience. The new generation, it seems, is ready to face the world only when armed with a set of earphones. Our little hermit is threatened with extinction.
The hermit tradition is as old as religion itself. All the great religions, including our own, were born in the desert. It was out of the desert that John the Baptist came foreshadowing the Messiah. It was out of the same desert that Christ came to preach the kingdom. All during his hectic public life, he kept harking back to his hermit past. The early church, closer to its founder than ours, showed a marked bias for the hermit tradition. It even flourished far removed from its desert home in rain-swept Ireland in the sixth and seventh centuries. Sceilg Mhichil never fails to intrigue the tourist, baffled how monks survived on that barren rock in the middle of an ocean. Some would see there the cradle of European Christendom. The wave of Irish monks who swept across Europe in the seventh century went first in search of solitude. Theirs was a voyage into the uncharted wilderness of their own being. This, above all, accounts for their extraordinary success as missionaries. The modern church paid its own complimnt to the contribution of hermits when it chose St Thérèse, a convent-bound contemplative, as the patroness of the missions.
Those who seek God are more likely to find him in solitude. We cannot expect him to queue up for our favour or to elbow his way into our noise-cluttered lives. The poet had a point when he wrote:
A poor world this, if full of care,
We have no time to stop and stare.
Hermit, the lodger, might well in the end be the one who will save us from our own folly. We should lend him an ear each time he nudges us, because he is trying to tell us what Christ told his apostles:
You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while.
Today's gospel lets us glimpse some of the compassion, thoughtfulness, and unselfishness of Jesus. It is wonderful to see Jesus in action at close range, as it were.
It is said that if you want to get something done quickly, ask a busy person. I remember an occasion from my days of teaching six and seven year olds. I was speaking about saints, when one young lad interrupted me with the comment, "My granny was a saint." "Oh, that's interesting. Why do you think that?" "My mammy said that she always had time for everyone." "Well, John, I didn't know your granny, but if what your mammy says is right, then she certainly was a saint."
The apostles returned from their mission and reported how they had done. Jesus brought them aside so they could have a rest. That was a thoughtful gesture. He himself was probably exhausted, but his concern was for them. They had all been so busy that they hadn't even time to eat. Thinking they could escape for a while, they crossed to the other side of the lake. This didn't work, however, because the people followed them.
Jesus was touched by their hunger for the food of life that he was offering them, and, despite his own tiredness and hunger, he felt sorry for them. He put his own needs to one side, ensured the apostles got away for a rest, and he himself began to minister to the people. He thought of them as sheep without a shepherd, something that would have caused real concern among a people who were familiar with the onus that was on every shepherd to take care of his sheep.
Today's gospel is followed by the miracle of the loaves and fishes. However, before that, he was going to feed them with the real food from heaven. We are told that "he taught them many things." This was their real hunger. They longed for good news, for love, for hope. Their own religious leaders controlled them, rather than fed them and nourished them. There is a hunger within the human spirit that cannot be satisfied with food. "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts can never be at peace until they rest in you."
Response: The apostles came back to Jesus. In him I have someone to whom I can report. His greatest concern was not so much how they had done, but how they were. They were tired, and he wanted to ensure that they got a rest. Grace builds on nature; it doesn't replace it. Taking care of the ordinary human mundane items is also part of God's plan for all of us. Because of Incarnation, we are reinforced in our humanity, not abstracted from it. We are not intended to become some Sort of disembodied spirits. Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick have a place, but sensitivity to age, health, etc., should be brought into the equation.
Three priests were having an intellectual debate on prayer. They discussed the merits of different poses, or bodily postures during prayer. One strongly advocated praying on one's knees, because that signified humility, reverence, and the proper attitude of the creature before the Creator. A second argued strongly for the lotus position, legs crossed, back upright, hands opened out on lap. This suggested availability, and a willingness to listen to the Lord. The third was equally convinced that the correct position in prayer was to pray as Jesus did, when he cast his eyes up to heaven.
There was an electrician working nearby, and he could not help over-hearing this profound debate. He was hesitant, but he decided to speak up, and make a contribution. "Far be it from me to enter into a debate about prayer with "men of the cloth." However, I just want to tell you what my own experience has been. I never thought much about right or wrong postures at prayer. Then, one day, I found myself hanging by one leg from an electric pole, in the middle of a thunderstorm, after the ladder had slipped. I cried out to God in that position, and, do you know something, he heard me!'
We get Jesus' attention, and we impress him through our powerlessness,
and our brokenness
2 Kgs 4:43-44. The prophet Elisha miraculously provides abundant food for a hundred men. This foreshadows our Lord's miracle of the loaves.
Eph 4:1-6. From prison, St. Paul invites his readers to live a life in keeping with the Gospel, emphasising unity and harmony.
Jn 6:1-15. Like Elisha Jesus feeds the people in the desert, using five barley loaves and two fish provided by a young boy; with a little cooperation, he can enhance life so much.
Theme: Miracles do still happen. If they are missing in our lives, it may be because we have lost our sense of wonder. Like the boy's lunch-bag, God can use our smallest efforts to work his greatest miracles.
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack.
Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat."
But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?"
So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus
says the Lord, 'They shall eat and have some left.'" He set it
before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
The eyes of all look to you,
You open your hand,
The Lord is just in all his ways,
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy
of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and
gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making
every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one
hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and
Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.
When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?"
Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up
the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." So they
gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves,
left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people
saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed
the prophet who is to come into the world." When Jesus realized
that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king,
he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
- that in this technological world we may rediscover our belief in the miraculous.
- that God may continue to use our little acts of kindness to perform his miracles
- for the poor and destitute, that their human dignity not be further eroded by people patronising or condemning them
- that individuals everywhere will recover confidence in their own
efforts and in the power of God to transform the world.
Thoughts for 17th Sunday, B
On hearing of the death of John the Baptist Jesus was deeply upset and in need of finding a quiet place where he could share his grief with his apostles. However, when he stepped ashore there were thousands waiting for him. Immediately he made them welcome, talked to them about the kingdom of God and cured those who were in need of healing. This healing was not just a magic wave of the hand. It would have involved listening to the people and their stories, spending time with them, showing care and concern and empathising with them.
Here we have a picture of the Church in every age. Jesus did not feed the hungry crowds on his own. He did it with the help of the apostles who were reluctant to accept responsibility for the hungry crowds. Their first reaction was to send the people away. Get somebody else to deal with the problem. Don't we often do the same when faced with a difficult situation: send them off to some so called expert or other. However, Jesus challenged them to look to their own resources. They remembered that they had 5 loaves and 2 fish which they brought to Jesus. The little they had when placed in his hands turned out to be more than enough for all.
The five loaves and two fish are symbols of the power for goodness which we all possess. In our eyes our gifts may appear to be insignificant, but they are what the Lord has given us and expect us to use in his service. This, in fact is their living out in daily life what the Eucharist is all about. Every single person is called upon to a life of service in their own way. It does not have to be spectacular or extraordinary - parents caring for their children, children helping in the home, doing one's job of work whatever it may be to the best of one's ability. Even the sick, the old and the housebound. The blind poet John Milton put it well: 'they also serve who only watch and wait. A smile, a kind word, a listening ear, a warm heart - these cost nothing but can mean so much.
Sometimes people say to me: I have nothing to contribute to any one any more. I am too old and to infirm to have anything to offer. This is false. In my life as a priest I have learnt so much from people like that. In spite of their infirmities they can be an inspiration to us all: their strong faith, their trust in God, their cheerfulness, their gratitude for small mercies.
And so, on this the feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ), the Lord invites us to be nourished at his table and always remember that the Eucharist is food for the sinner, not the prize for the perfect. As well as that the Lord sends us forth to give as we have received, to forgive as we have been forgiven and to love as we have been loved.
"Though the mills of God grind slowly, they grind exceedingly small," is a Greek saying that comes from ancient times. It is a good thing to go back in time and reflect on the providence of God preparing, in gradual and unexpected ways, the ground of the faith we profess. The cradle of civilisation linked with urban based society was Mesopotamia, the land of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates of modem Iraq. This civilisation flourished centuries before that of Egypt, and instead of being nomadic, its people began to live in cities, something which required enterprise, organisation, and new codes of law. It was over-run about 3,500 B.C. by an Asiatic race, the Sumerians, who were responsible for some brilliant changes - irrigation by a network of canals, huge building projects such as walled cities and towering ziggurats to honour their gods - the tower of Babel derived from these - and above all the development of a system of writing, called cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets that formed an alphabet. ne of their cities was Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, the father in faith of the Jewish people and of all of us Christians too.
It was a giant step forward, demanding courage and trust, for Abraham to abandon the gods his people worshipped, to forsake his own relatives, leave his native country, and come to believe in, and worship the one true God whom his successors adore to this day. An interesting thing about the Sumerian language is that the word for slave was foreigner, and the descendants of Abraham who had sought refuge from famine in Egypt, because they were foreigners, in time were subjected to slavery, especially in the building projects of the Pharaohs.
The economy of most historic nations in ancient times was sustained by slavery. For example, a fourth century B.C. census of Attica, a province of Greece, listed 400,000 slaves, half the total population. Slaves were regarded as low-grade human beings, and their masters had the power of life and death over them. When Moses led the chosen people out of Egypt and into the Sinai wilderness to escape this slavery, they soon discovered that freedom in the desert was a somewhat poor substitute for slavery back in Egypt. Existence in this barren region was precarious, water was scarce, and they sighed after the fleshpots of Egypt, and the bread and vegetables they could eat there to their hearts" content. The result was a lack of faith in God, and rebellion against Moses. "Is the Lord with us or not?" they complained. They quickly tired of the manna and quails God sent them as food. The complaint of God through the prophet Jeremiah much later applied then also, "They did not listen, they did not pay attention; they ollowed the dictates of their own evil hearts, and turned their backs on me" (7:24).
This hardness of heart was shown towards Jesus, God's own divine Son as well. People could not bring themselves to admit that there was anything special about him, so ordinary did he appear. In our own time some Christians seem to be posing the question, "is the Lord with us or not?" by their attitude to the Eucharistic species. But unless we firmly believe that Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine, after the words of consecration have been said over them, we are not true followers of Christ. For where a handful of Christians, however few, come together to celebrate the Eucharist, there is Christ in the midst of them (Mt 18:20). In other words, the Eucharist in the Church bears enduring witness before all ages that Christ has risen from the dead, that he is really present, at this moment in his Church.
The gospel story of the miraculous feeding of the multitude is a unique sign to us that Christ is the one who sustains us, not only by his living word, but with the gift of his self in the bread of the Eucharist. During the first World War a saintly priest in France (Pere Lamy) was given three reasons by our Lord as to why that conflict began. These were blasphemy, the desecration of marriage, and working on Sunday. We don't have to turn to Europe to find evidence of the continued existence of these three sinful habits. Sad to say they are increasingly becoming part of our Irish way of life today, and the precious Christian heritage which has been entrusted to us will be slowly eroded unless we make room for Christ in our lives, and in particular by our love for the sacrifice of the Mass keep the Lord's Day holy.
Today's Old Testament and Gospel readings tell of the feeding of hungry people. Elijah's miracle, for the poor widow, came towards the end of a long drought when famine raged in the land of Israel, and the kindly action of a well-wisher enabled the prophet to feed his hungry community.
We are all too familiar from television with the obscenity of people dying of starvation in an affluent world for whom there has been no miraculous feeding. Sometimes, by contrast, we have known joyful moments of humane solidarity, when music and celebration aroused the hope that we could "Feed the World." On days like that, the little we gave seemed as important as the loaves and fishes. When people share food and resources with strangers, barriers are broken down. They recognize their dependence on one another.
But just as soon as one crisis of starvation has been relieved, another seems to arise. People in the poorest of developing countries still struggle, just to survive. It is easy to feel powerless in the face of the sheer impossibility of feeding the world, to allow the first symptoms of "compassion fatigue" as the aid agencies call it, to give way to numbed indifference. Like Elijah's servant or Andrew, we ask, "How can we feed so many, with so little?"
It would horrify the humane voters in democratic lands if our leaders and planners openly admitted how the economic logic which sustains our way of life dictates that the most powerless are destined to go hungry for ever. But our developed world makes tough trade agreements, creates food mountains and milk-lakes, and diverts financial and human resources into the arms trade rather than into development and education. Even if our leaders and planners are sensible, humane people, they are - like ourselves - caught in the web of unjust expectations which is part of what we mean by "the sin of the world."
Mahatma Ghandi said once, "To the poor man, God does not appear except in the form of bread and in the promise of work." The Eucharist renews the deepest springs of our humanity by a story of bread broken and eaten for the life of the world. Can we help those who celebrate the Eucharist with us this Sunday to see a link between it and the hunger of the world? Has the parish some project to support a missionary helping in the developing world, or can some local people to be enlisted in telling the story of such a project?
"Gather up the fragments so that nothing gets wasted." Global solutions lie beyond the power of our local parish, which is why we need to remember the lesson of the fragments. If we can put a little new heart into our efforts, that will be something worthwhile. If we can become conscious of our wastefulness of world resources, it may be the beginning of repentance.
Today's Gospel (the multiplication of the loaves) would easily justify a Eucharistic homily. But since next Sunday also treats of this theme, I'm inclined to focus today on the aims and ideals proposed in that splendid second reading: the Christian call, according to Paul, prisoner for Christ.
1.Freedom is as much "for" as "from":
Personal freedom is something we rightly treasure. As a vital part in the pursuit of happiness, it is increasingly taken for granted, at least in our developed countries, as a basic human right. We resent any excessive and unwarranted intrusions on our liberty, whether by our neighbours, or by officials such as police, bureaucrats, revenue collectors, or even by the leaders of our Church. We want to be free to do as we please with our lives, our energy and our income. This is a good desire, on just one condition, that what we desire is itself good. It's not enough to be free from pressures and interference. Freedom must also be for something. It is not complete until we put it to work, using it for something worthwhile.
2. St Paul was a positive person
We all know some people who seem to have an unusual level of freedom and initiative, in deciding what to do with their energy and their time. They get things done, while others would still be anxiously fretting and wondering whether to do anything! Paul of Tarsus was a great "Doer," a man who believed in his mission in life, which was to share Christ with as many people as possible. Among the apostles, he was the supreme activist, spreading the Gospel "in season and out of season." While the conservative Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem worried about what conditions would need to be imposed before letting Greek converts into the Church, Paul was already out on his mission-field, winning those Greeks for Christ. What made Paul so sure that his way was right? He was deeply convinced that it was God's way, that his vocation came to him direct from the living God.
3. Paul reminds each one of our own vocation
He wrote this letter not just to the leaders, nor even to the whole community in Ephesus, but to every one of his converts. It is meant as an "encyclical," a final word for all his mission parishes. And his message holds good today, for each adult Christian who is willing to listen to God's call. The whole basis for our faith, says Paul, is that the good God has blessed us, and made us his children by grace: there is one God, the Father of us all. He is the God of mercy, who "opens wide his hand" to bless, and is "loving in all his deeds."
Once we realise this, we also understand how much is asked of us in response. We need to love others as God loves them, "with unselfishness, gentleness and patience." This is the truly "good" life, the proper life-style for a Christian. Of course, such perfect love and unity with others is not an easy vocation, and indeed is never quite within our power to achieve. Still, it is there as a guiding ideal, calling us onward and upward. Any worth-while vocation is like that; it calls us beyond ourselves.
4. Making a Start
All too often, our response to such high idealism is to shrug and say, "Be realistic! Don't expect much from me! I'm no hero, just an ordinary person." Paul would not let us cop out of the love ideal so easily. With a nice sense of balance, he advises, "do what you can to achieve and preserve it." The problem often lies in getting started. What you or I can actually do, here and now, to help our neighbours, may seem woefully small. But it's all that's required of us just at this point in time. Elisha's servant felt that his twenty small loaves were nowhere near enough to feed a hundred hungry men. Still, once distributed, those loaves made all the difference.
5. Cooperating with Christ
The Christian vocation to love others, whether it comes to us as married or as single, as lay-person, religious or priest, is always part of our personal relationship with Our Lord. It is only fulfilled in co-operation with him. Each of us can be like those disciples, who took the bread that Jesus blessed, and then distributed it to the crowds. Some of us, like Philip, may feel reluctant at first to get involved in a problem that looks too big to solve. Others, like Andrew, are a bit more optimistic, and begin to notice whatever glimmerings of hope are there in the situation. But if Jesus has the willing co-operation of all his friends, something great will be done for the people in need.
The needs are still all round us. We just need to open our eyes, to see them. Problems to be faced; people to be loved, respected and listened to. To be involved in helping others, with our talents, our energy and our love, is the best and proper use of our freedom. And it will, please God, add up to "a life worthy of our vocation."
The Gospel for the following three Sundays is taken from the "Bread of Life Discourse" (Jn 6). When faced with today's Gospel, the homilist is often tempted to preach on the Eucharist, but there will be other and better opportunities for that over the coming weeks. In both the first reading and the gospel reading, a man of God feeds a large multitude with a small amount of food. The prophet Elisha feeds a crowd of one hundred with twenty barley loaves; Jesus, "the prophet who is to come into the world," feeds a crowd of five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish. In both readings, the seeming inadequacy of the resources to meet the need is expressed in question form: the man from Baal-shalishah asks: "How can I serve this to a hundred people?"; Andrew asks: "What is that between so many?" We are reminded of Mary's question to Gabriel "How will this be?" to which she received the answer: "Nothing is impossible for God." The homilist might highlight, on the basis of today's reading, how the impossible cn become possible with God.
It is significant that Jesus fed the multitude with food which one of their own number supplied. He did not bypass the resources of the crowd, but he took those resources, hopelessly inadequate as they were, and, after giving thanks, he gave them back to the crowd and all ate and were satisfied. So, Andrew and the other disciples discovered that the impossible became possible in the power and prayer of Jesus. What was given to Jesus was given back by him transformed. The hungry multitude is still with us, the hunger of many for the basic necessities of life the hunger and thirst for justice, the hunger of authentic love, the hunger for God. In responding to these various hungers, the Lord will not bypass our own resources. They may not be adequate to meet a particular need, but neither are they irrelevant. The Lord asks us to give ourselves and our resources generously to him, to place ourselves, what we have and what we are, at his disposal. Then, we need never underestimate what the Lord can do through us. f we place our resources before the Lord, he will feed the hunger of his people with them, inadequate as those resources may seem to us.
The second reading reminds us that we were "called into one and the same hope." Today's readings call on us to be people of hope, a hope rooted in the life-giving power of the risen Lord. The letter to the Ephesians gives glory "to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Eph 3:20.) Often our faith is not expectant enough; we underestimate the person of the risen Lord; we fail to appreciate how powerfully he can work through generous lives. Certainly, in today's Gospel, Andrew and the other disciples underestimated Jesus; the reaction of the crowd to the miracle of Jesus showed how they underestimated and undervalued him, seeing in him a mere political Messiah. They made Jesus in their own image; in reality he shatters all our images of him and "is able to do immeasurably more than" we could imagine. Believing in such a Lord, we can never write off any situation, or indeed, any person, as hopeless; we need never despair before the eormity of the tasks which face us. The Lord who fed the five thousand with the five loaves inspires us to work quietly, confidently and hopefully for the coming of his kingdom, wherein every hunger will be satisfied and every thirst quenched.
Progress always carries a price-tag. Chain-saws grind relentlessly through the Amazon rain-forest like a surgeon's scalpel threatening to puncture the planet's lungs. The architectural dinosaurs of the modern city not only scar the sky-line but also dwarf its inhabitants. We are being dangerously out-proportioned by our artificially-created environment. We could be reduced to a race of moral pygmies. One senses a growing feeling of inadequacy in ordinary people. Governments reach deeper into their lives and their pockets to pay for a progress that only too often diminishes them. Many feel that they are no longer in control and, worse still, that they no longer count. They badly need to recover a sense of the miraculous: the belief that though they themselves may not be able to perform miracles, they can contribute powerfully towards making them happen.
Today's miracle should help restore our lost confidence.
"There is a small boy here," Andrew informed the others. And with this insignificant detail an extraordinary miracle began to take shape. The little lad calls for closer inspection. Presumably, in the manner of little boys, he had wormed his way to the front of the crowd where he caught Andrew's eye. He must have been close enough to overhear Jesus question Philip on the food situation. With all the innocence of a child he proudly displayed to Andrew the contents of his lunch bag - two fish and five barley Loaves - and offered to share it. Most adults in a similar situation would have been more circumspect. One could, without exciting too much curiosity, slip momentarily behind a tree or a boulder and tuck in discreetly. Besides, nature has other calls which, like "time and tide, wait for no man." Conscience could easily be stilled with Andrew's observation, "what is that between so many?" The little boy was obviously alone, not part of a family outing. It was an adult gathering, not the sort of place a littl boy would choose to spend his day. More likely, he had spent his day fishing in the nearby lake and later came to see what the crowd were up to. And so he arrived with his catch of two fish and the five buns his mother had packed for his lunch.
That evening he would recount it all breathlessly to his mother. "Imagine, Mother," he would say, "with the fish I caught and the buns you baked, Jesus fed five thousand people and there were baskets of it left over." Mother might, as mothers do, have shaken her head in disbelief and packed him off to bed. But he would never forget as long as he lived that he had contributed to a miracle.
We should not forget either. Overwhelmed as we may be with the might of technological progress, we should always remember that it is with our little efforts that God chooses to make his greatest miracles. God and little boys together make a formidable combination
Today's gospel is from John, chapter six, where Jesus gives a long teaching on Eucharist, and how he is the Bread of Life. It is fitting, therefore, that the chapter should begin with the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
For the past few years I have had the privilege of accompanying a disabled children's pilgrimage to Lourdes. There are children there for those few days from almost every country in Europe. One of the days involves a trip to the mountains for a picnic, and fun and games. Everybody is supplied with food and drink, which is packed in several large cardboard boxes. On my first trip to the mountains an interesting thing happened. One of the groups discovered when they got to the mountain that they had left all their food and drink back in the hotel. There was no chance of getting sufficient refreshments locally, so there was only one obvious solution. Those of us with food and drink examined what we had, and selected one or two items which we gave to those without food and drink. As there were many groups involved, it so happened that those without anything ended up with more than they could eat, while all the rest of us were more than happy with what we had.
The one thing that hits you at the beginning of this gospel is the fact that these people were determined to follow Jesus day and night, up hill, and down dale. They are not the ones who mentioned food. They were driven by another hunger for a different kind of food. The next section of this chapter of the gospel, which is not included today, is the teaching of Jesus about Eucharist, the Bread of Life.
Jesus knew what he was going to do, yet he asked Philip what we should do. It was Jesus' way of confronting Philip with his powerlessness. When Jesus gets any of us to this point, his power can become miraculous in us. It is only when I am convinced that I am powerless that there is any chance of me getting out of the way, and letting Jesus take over, and do for me what I never could do for myself. They hadn't much, but they made it available. That is another condition for a miracle. At Cana they just had water. Here they have a few loaves and a few fish. "Let me have them," says Jesus, "and I will do the rest." No matter how disabled Jam, no matter how busy I am, no matter how impoverished I am, I have enough, if I hand it over to the Lord.
Not only did Jesus feed them, but there were several basketfuls left over. He is a generous God, and he is prodigal with his gifts. And yet he didn't want anything wasted. God doesn't waste a thing. He even takes our sins and failures and turns them into compassion and understanding for others. They wanted to take him and make him king. He came to be king. And yet their different understanding of the meaning of that word was worlds apart from his. His was not a kingdom of power, but one based on powerlessness. His throne was not a lofty pedestal, but the heart of each humble person. He began in a manger, and his pretensions, in earthly terms, were never above that. He would die, nailed to a few planks of timber, and would be buried in someone else's grave.
Upon the mountaintop there lived a kind and gentle God. In the village, far below, his people lived. They were a busy people, with many books to read, many games to play, and many meetings to attend. They seldom thought about the kind and gentle God, so far away did he seem. No one had even seen his face. Some doubted he was even there at all.
Yet, one day, the gentle God looked down upon his own, and wanted, much, that they should be his friends. "I must do some small things," he thought, "to show them that I care." And so, each day, he sent a messenger to the village, a pack upon his back, and in the pack was a gift for everyone in the village.
Each day the gifts arrived. Each day the people ran with open arms to gather them. Soon, however, they grew quite used to being gifted. Some began to grab gifts from the pack, some took more than they were meant to have, and some complained of gifts that were too small. Far up on the mountain sat God. Day after lonely day, he waited for a word of thanks, a friendly word, or just a recognition that he was there. But no word came. The people took the gifts as if they had a right to them, and more. God? Well, he was far away. And some said "What has he ever done for me?" And others "I don't believe he even exists."
"If I can't tell them that I am," God thought, "how can I tell them that I am a friend, and that I want to give them friendship most of all?" And then his eyes lit up. "I know," he said. "I'll give a party for my friends below. I'll give a party, and I'll invite them all. Surely if they spend some time with me, and learn to know how much I really care, then, of course, they'll come to know that I am their friend." And so the invitations were sent out. A list was posted on the town hall, so that people could come and put a tick after a name, to indicate a willingness to attend. Some just laughed, and said "That's not for me!" And some said "Spend a day with God? No way!" And some were busy with their chores, and said "Some other time, but not today." Some were tempted. "Maybe it is for real, and maybe God does want to be my friend." Timidly, they signed up for the day. But when others laughed, they became embarrassed, and they removed their names.
The party day arrived, but no one showed up. And in his mountain
home the kind Cod sat. "I only want to give them love," he
said. "How can I tell them? Make them understand? Is there no one
who wants me for a friend?" And in the village far below the people
laughed and cried. They worked, and played, and died. And seldom, if
ever, did they think of the gentle God who loved them so much.
Exod 16:2-4, 12-15. In response to their complaints, God feeds the Israelites in the desert by sending them manna and quails. This became the classic example of Yahweh's care for his people.
Eph 4:17, 20-24. Christians should turn aside from an aimless, pagan style of life and to live in a spirit of goodness, holiness, and truth.
Jn 6:24-35. Jesus is the true bread from heaven, nourishing his people with a life that will never end.
Theme: There is another hunger in the world, mentioned rarely in the mass media: a hunger for God. Only the Bread of Life can satisfy the famished souls of the world's affluent.
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
"I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.'
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning
there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted,
there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as
fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to
one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was.
Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you
Things that we have heard and known,
What our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
Yet he commanded the skies above,
Mortals ate of the bread of angels;
And he brought them to his holy hill,
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.
They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard
about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught
to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded
by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to
clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness
of God in true righteousness and holiness.
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?"
Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. or it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"
Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not
Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives
you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes
down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him,
"Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I
am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and
whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
- for those who hunger for God in the world, that our Christian community may lead them to him.
- for those whose lives are steeped in materialism, that they may rediscover the spiritual.
- for those who have grown lukewarm in the practice of the faith, that they may again experience the presence of God in their lives.
- for our young who no longer frequent the sacrament of the Eucharist,
that they may find their way back to the altar.
Thoughts for 18th Sunday, B
One of the truly great masterpieces of fiction was the satirical story of Don Quixote, by the Spanish writer Cervantes. In it we read how the absurdly chivalrous hero, followed by his squire Sancho Panza, set out to find adventure, to perform deeds of bravery and win the admiration of all those close to him. He had such an open mind in this quest that he decided to go wherever his horse Rosinante would lead him. But the horse, finding itself given free rein, naturally returned to the place it knew best, its own stable. Too often perhaps, we humans find ourselves going the same way, doing the same thing, returning to the same sinful habits again and again, sometimes also drifting aimlessly, sometimes lured on by the novelty of sensationalism, sometimes a prey to the enticements of others, or carried away by the latest fashion in religion.
St Paul, in today's second reading, is quite adamant in his condemnation of that kind of haphazard behaviour. "I want to urge you in the name of the Lord," he says, "not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live." The inner life of pagans was one in which human weakness led to countless moral failures, and the pursuit of a career of indecency of every kind, often culminating in permanent spiritual collapse. However, "if we live by the truth and in love, we shall grow in all ways into Christ, who is the head by whom the whole body is fitted and joined together, until it has built itself up, in love" (4:15f). In other words, Christ must be seen before the whole world to be a living influence in the lives of all his true followers.
But as against this, if people concern themselves only with immoral things, their understanding will be darkened, and, worst of all, their hearts will be petrified, that is to say they become like stone. This lapsing into sin is quite discernible to others. There is a certain mystery attached to sin, but we can say for certain that nobody becomes a sinner all at once. When people first become aware by the light of their conscience that they have fallen into sin, they regard the action, which led to this, with horror and regret. But if they ignore this, if they continue with their sinful ways, there will inevitably come a time when they will lose all sense of wrongdoing, when they will even commit the most shameful actions without any feeling of guilt whatsoever.
At that stage the conscience will have become petrified, a dead thing incapable of discerning right from wrong.
In the gospel story of the people who followed Jesus all along the shore of the lake which, after the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, he had crossed by boat, we have the example of people who were concerned solely with satisfying their bodily needs. They were so enthusiastic about this sudden abundance of food that they decided to ensure its continuation. And so they wanted to make Jesus a king. They were totally blind to the spiritual content of the miracle, and the message Jesus wanted them to draw from it. "Do not work for food that cannot last," Jesus warned them, "but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you."
With us too, it so often happens that we are willing to follow Christ - even to seek him out with a certain kind of zeal - but on our own conditions, namely, that he should solve our immediate problems, and grant us the requests we make of him. If we feel he has let us down, we sometimes go so far as to contemplate turning our backs on him. But never on such conditions will Christ draw near to us. We must seek him for himself, and not for what we can get from him. The bread come down from heaven referred to by Jesus is the Blessed Eucharist, and the proper reception of this requires that we open ourselves to God's love which comes to us in the person of Jesus. Furthermore it demands of us acceptance of others as well. Unlike those who abandoned Jesus when no more bread was forthcoming, we must keep on trying to be his faithful followers.
This will most certainly be achieved if we place our trust firmly in his divine help which is there for the asking. "Work for your salvation in fear and trembling," the New Testament urges us, and then goes on to reassure us, "It is God who gives you both the will and the ability to act, and so achieve his own purpose" (Phil 2:12f). It is a further consolation and encouragement to us that we could not begin to seek God, if he had not already found us.
This Sunday's Scriptures confront us with one of the most crucial questions we all must deal with in living the Christian life: discernment. How can we, as followers of Christ, accurately read "the signs of the times," i.e., look for the hand of God at work in our world without getting "side-tracked" into the dead-end streets (perishable food) of our own limited vision? The problem that besets us in this attempt to "do the works of God" is inextricably linked with the ambiguity of our own existence. We are constantly "seduced" by personal and social concerns which seem at times to be of ultimate value, but which are in reality short-lived and even contrary to our own growth and development. Wealth, power, prestige, and sexuality are all aspects of our lives which can positively help us to do the works of God; but if these are taken as the ultimate goals of our lives we become enslaved by them.
The homilist may wish to illustrate this dilemma with an example from his ministry. One obvious example is that of the dedicated business executive who is father to a family. He spends the majority of his time "getting ahead:" working over-time and on weekends; bringing work home from the office; attending all the "compulsory" social engagements that are demanded of him by his position in the company. He tells himself that he is doing all this in order to be a "good" father and husband - to provide a "better life" for his family. (A "better life" in this instance equals a new car, a larger home, more exotic vacations, designer clothes for his wife and children.) After years of this kind of dedication to his work out of love for his family he suddenly comes to realise that he has become almost a stranger to his wife and children. He finds that he has little in common with them. Despite all his work and good intentions, he had never spent the time to significantly enter into their lives, and now that he is finaly established in his business and feels the need of their support and love, they cannot give it to him because they do not know him. In the words of today's Gospel, rather than working for the bread that remains to eternal life, this man was in reality working for perishable food.
How can we avoid this, and similar "traps?" How can we discern that what we do, how we live, is based on ultimate, life-giving Christian values? The Gospel today tells us that to truly do the "works of God" we must have faith in the One whom God has sent. In other words, we must view both our efforts and our values in the light of our belief in Jesus Christ, our true bread of life. This challenge contained in today's Gospel is an On-going process, for we always have need to take time out of our busy schedules in order to see if, indeed, we have wandered into a "dead-end" street.
At this point, the homilist might also wish to weave into his homily the exhortation contained in today's reading from Ephesians, an exhortation which, as we have seen, is based on early baptismal practice. In this light, faith in Jesus as the bread of life would seem to he almost impossible if one were not to take the radical nature of one's baptism seriously. Our baptismal commitment must be constantly renewed. Have we really "taken off" the old, "pagan" person that is in each one of us? Have we really put on Christ? What attracts us to the Church, to Christ - the perishable food of societal approval or comfortable tradition?
Finally, today's readings might also provide the homilist with an opportunity to speak about the Eucharist - Christ's gift of himself to us each week - our true "bread of life." Today's Gospel offers us a model for our own Eucharist for it contains the ethical imperatives we all need to reflect on before coming to the altar, Jesus spoke about himself being the true bread from heaven, i.e., the true wisdom and knowledge of God. Like the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we only have access to this wisdom and knowledge this power of discernment through a radical faith in the person of Jesus Christ. Our reception of the Lord in the Eucharist is dependent upon this kind of faith which is naturally expressed in our actions. In other words, we must live this Eucharist, this thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ during the week, if we are to really appreciate the presence of Christ in our celebration of the Sacrament on Sunday.
This idea could be illustrated by the homilist by using portions of the Eucharistic prayer to be prayed during the celebration. For example: Eucharistic Prayer III contains the phrase "May he (Christ) make us an everlasting gift to you (the Father.)" If the Eucharist is a celebration of the Christian life that we lead during the week, have we allowed Christ to enter into our lives, in such a way as to allow him to present us to the Father as "Gift?" In this manner, the homilist may connect the daily life of individuals with what is prayed during the rest of the Mass.
The best sermon I remember on the Eucharist was a reflection on the antiphon "O Sacrum Convivium." We all remember happy meals together. Memories are so essential to us but, as the phrase goes, remembering we forget." What do we remember about Jesus? Do we ever imagine ourselves at the Last Supper, or as an onlooker on his life? Jesus' whole life, suffering and death was the bread which came down from heaven. The problem is that we so easily stay on the surface of things and memories of the past and do not look deeply enough. We need ordinary food but we cannot live on bread alone. The most important ministry is the ministry of meaning which gives us a reason, a purpose, a caring father to live for, to journey with and towards. Our real hunger needs to be satisfied. This is what T. S. Eliot called The Waste Land, the aridness, void and alienation created by greed and materialism in the most sophisticated of modern societies. The people knew that Jesus had something, was somebody they needed even though they culd not spell it out. Our hearts are restless until we rest in Him.
But as the hymn puts it, there is a present dimension. "What must we do?", they asked Jesus. "You must believe." The declaration "I believe" in the early Church meant "I herein give my heart to." It is not merely a head trip, a question of moving from disbelief to belief, but a change of values, direction (above all of heart), to entrust one's talents, one's life, to be loyal and committed. For this we need help, grace from the kindly generosity of the Father in Jesus. Thirdly, the Eucharist is, to use the modern phrase, Back to the Future." Because we have already experienced the pearl of great price, we are eagerly looking forward like a bride to her wedding day, to the future coming of Christ. We will never be really hungry for anything else. He is our all, our peace.
History repeats itself. At least, certain historical events, though widely separated in time, often have features strikingly similar. Historians attribute the proximate cause of the French Revolution to the chronic bread-shortage in Paris. What began as a simple demand for bread later evolved into a full-scale revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity. Two hundred years later, before the last bicentenary toast had been raised in Paris, another world-shaking revolution was in the making on the other side of Europe. The first inkling the West got of trouble brewing in the Soviet empire were the television pictures of lengthening bread queues in Prague and Bucharest and even Moscow itself. With a rapidity that took even seasoned political commentators completely by surprise, bread queues changed to mass rallies, toppling one regime after another. The Soviet regimes, like the ancient régime, had ignored the dictum cynically coined by the Romans two thousand years earlier: To keep the people happy, "give the bread and circuses."
TV revealed all, especially East Berliners pouring through a leaky Wall to gorge themselves on the bread and honey in the Promised Land on the other side. But the early euphoria was not destined to last. Soon, the more discerning were slipping back through their hole in the Wall, disillusioned at what they, found there. The shops were full alright and so were the people. But for those who could see beyond the crass consumerism, there were long lines of soul-famished people. The well-upholstered West Berliner, wrapped in furs and dripping with pearls, was often just as hungry as his gaunt and thinly-clad cousin from the East. It may not be the hunger which provokes revolutions but it is just as lethal to individuals.
There is a great hunger too in the West, a hunger for God and his life-giving Bread. We should be slow to rub our hands in glee and gloat over the demise of atheistic communism. The Christian West is ailing too, less spectacularly, perhaps, but nonetheless alarmingly. With rapidly declining church attendances and fast disappearing priesthood, our needs are urgent. "I am the bread of life," Christ warns us as he warned the hungry crowd, "He who comes to me will never be hungry: he who believes in me will never thirst."
Having fed them with the miracles of the loaves and fish, Jesus tries to teach the people about the eternal food he is offering them. He answers a core and central question which they put to him "What does God want us to do?'
Without denying their need for food, Jesus was definite about what their real concerns should be. Their fathers ate manna in the desert and they're dead. The manna was bread for that one day only. They were not allowed pick up manna for the following day, because that would show that they didn't trust God to provide. What he is speaking about now is seeking a life that is endless, with him and his Father.
Eternal life is to be found within the Kingdom which he came to establish. In that Kingdom, he is Lord, everyone is equally invited and entitled, and his power is the only power that works. Jesus speaks about seeking this eternal life. In another passage, he compares it to someone searching for a pearl of great price, and, once the pearl is found, the person will sell everything else to get the money to buy that pearl. It is a definite and stark priority in one's life. Nothing else matters. "Seek you first the Kingdom of God, and its righteousness, and everything else will be added on to you."
What God wants of us is that we believe in Jesus. Believing in Jesus means accepting what he says, and acting on that. He is the bread of life, and those who believe in him will have their hungers fulfilled for all eternity. They will never be hungry or thirsty again. When Jesus says "never" he means "never." This offering is for real, and it is for keeps.
While the following is not a story, per se, it is something I imagine
could easily have happened. Grief is the price you pay for love. If
you never want to cry at a funeral, then don't ever love anyone. If
you have a capacity for love, then you should have the tissues convenient.
Jesus cried when he overlooked Jerusalem. "Salvation was within
your grasp, and you would not accept it." He spent many a long
night alone on the mountain, being in touch with his Father. "I
never say anything unless my Father tells me." I often imagine
him crying there, because his heart was aching. "Father, I told
them everything you told me, but they just won't believe. I told them
about the Prodigal Son, but they still doubt your love and forgiveness.
I told them about the birds of the air, and the lilies of the fields,
but they still worry, and are anxious. I told them all about eternal
life, but they are terrified of dying. I told them about the eternal
bread that will remove all their hungers and thirsts, but they seem
to havesome compulsion to horde and accumulate, and they are never satisfied.
Father, they just don't believe me When the Son of Man comes, will he
find any faith on this earth? The sin of this world is unbelief in me.
1 Kgs 19:4-8. Elijah is a broken and dispirited man, when, at his lowest point an angel gives him food and drink. Revived by these he reaches the mountain of God.
Eph 4:30-5:2. Disciples ought to be kind and forgiving towards one another as God is towards them.
Jn 6:41-51. Jesus is the new 'manna' from heaven, leading to eternal life. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.
Theme: A broken man is fed to give him strength to go on. Jesus promises to be for us the Bread of Life, who will bring us to our journey's end - eternal life as the children of God.
But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came
and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die:
"It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better
than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell
asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up
and eat." He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on
hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.
The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, "Get
up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you." He
got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food
forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
I will bless the Lord at all times;
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
O magnify the Lord with me,
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
Look to him, and be radiant;
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as
God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved
children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for
us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?"
Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise them up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.
"I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the
wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven,
so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came
down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and
the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
- for those who are tempted to give up the spiritual struggle, that like Elijah they may make their way back into the light.
- that like Peter, we may find in the gospel the words of eternal life.
- that we may find in the Eucharist the promise of a future life, at God's table in heaven.
- that we may live our lives well here on earth, guided and encouraged
by the promise of eternity.
Thoughts for 19th Sunday, B
A common excuse, often given by people who do not go to church or practise their religion publicly, is: "I don't want to have any thing to do with institutionalised religion. I seek God in my own private way." Sadly, however, such an attempt to break away from the Church, from every kind of religious bond with others, can result in isolating oneself in what an eminent East European writer and politician has described as "a foxhole of purely material existence." Of course it is only God who can see into the motives and actions of each one of us; it is God who leads each of us by paths we are often not even aware of, that is, provided we are really willing in our submission to his will for us. But of this we can be certain, that, ordinarily, we place our eternal salvation at risk if we ignore the common channels of grace which Christ has left to us, especially if we cut ourselves off from the sacramental life of the Church which Christ founded on the Apostles.
Jesus brings this home to us in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man in Hades implored Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to his five brothers on earth, to warn them to change their lives and so escape the torments he himself was enduring. But the reply of Abraham was, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them." In other words the rich man's brothers should avail of the ordinary means of salvation open to all the chosen people.
The pilgrimage of the prophet Elijah to Mount Sinai has a lesson for us also. For we too are members of a pilgrim Church on its way to the God who transcends this world. Like Elijah we too are in need of refreshment and strength to face the difficulties and perils that we encounter on our journey. We are in perpetual need of reform, of being renewed again in spirit, even as the Church herself is. The question is where do we seek this renewal. The immediate answer must be in the sacraments, which are the visible and effective signs of Christ's continued presence on earth; and it is only through the intervention of Christ that we can be raised to a new level spiritually.
You may have noticed the recurring theme of the Eucharist in the readings of the past three Sundays. The danger is always there, that we can become indifferent to the sense of the presence of Christ in our Church, even in the sacraments. This is something we cannot afford to do, especially when we celebrate the Mass. We must keep reminding ourselves, that in the Mass we are commemorating Christ's Last Supper in the upper room, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. In the Mass Christ becomes truly and efficaciously present here among us; and he becomes present in a closely personal and intimate way in each of us when we receive Holy Communion. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, "every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ, the High Priest, and of his Body, the Church, is a sacred action, surpassing all private acts of worship or prayer."
To repeat, the Council is, in fact, saying that every celebration of the liturgy - and this especially applies to the Mass - is far more pleasing to God than any private prayers or worship, and the two agents which give rise to it are Christ and the Church. In particular, in the Eucharistic celebration, we are taken up into communion with Christ, and with one another. For the Eucharist is a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, drawing us together into the one Body which is Christ. And this sacred action is something that proceeds without interruption. For the sacrifice of Christ never ceases. He is forever being immolated on the altar, and forever a victim in the tabernacle of every church. Moreover, Christ assures us, "where two or three meet together in my name, I will be there with them."
But if we choose to isolate ourselves from the believing community, carve out, for ourselves the "foxholes of purely material existence," which were referred to already, then Christ will inevitably pass us by. As the English poet John Donne said, "No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main" (Devotions). Whether in the world of every day life, or in the spiritual sphere, we need each other. We need the example, the encouragement, the prayers of others, so that, with them, we may answer the call of Christ's Spirit to form in him and through him, one family, one People of God.
The annual holiday has become an institution of our society; it is part of the contract of every working man and woman, I mention this because this is a time of the year when holidays are probably a preoccupation of our people, and further because it may help to launch a few thoughts on what "real living" is and specifically what the link is between the Eucharist and this "real living."
Everyone looks forward to their holiday as the opportunity to get away and be free from some of their daily constraints and the pressures of their work. For the young person it can conjure up all kinds of possibilities of adventure, new experiences, a time to be oneself - or even to find oneself. More settled adults have more limited expectations. The holiday offers less the prospect of new discoveries or experiences, and more the chance for rest, the restoring of flagging energies and perhaps renewing their joyfulness and zest for life. Whether young or old the holidays are a time to be really ourselves and to really live and ideally they help us to live with more zest when we return to "normality."
This time of leisure is a time for recreating, restoring our lives, ultimately to benefit our living. It is not in itself the object of our life. We do not live in order to have leisure, we have leisure in order to live. This may sound trite but most people feel it when a holiday is too long or perhaps just a little aimless, the idea of endless leisure somehow sounds intolerably boring.
This image of rest and recreation links up with Eucharist and Christian living. In today's reading, we see Elijah as a man who has had too much of this life and its burdens. His mission to fight against the paganism promoted by Queen Jezebel had sapped his energies and hopefulness, and he wanted out. Unfortunately there was no such thing as a vacation for the prophet, but he did seek rest and renewal by going to the mountain of God, searching for God who alone could give him the renewed faith and courage he needed. It was out there in the wasteland of his life that he found the bread of God which gave him the strength he needed.
Like the adventurous youngster, the tired worker and the jaded prophet, the Christian, too, needs rest and recreation if he or she is to really live the life that God has given us. Today's second reading has guidelines on what kind of living is involved here. It offers a standard against which we can measure ourselves, to see whether we are really living (in the Christian sense) or not. There are warning lights to show if our spiritual lives are running down or we are becoming dispirited - malice, bitterness, slander. These are forms of weakness which lead us to snap at our neighbour; they are destructive. We can usually rationalise them in terms of the difficulties we are facing... we have suffered disappointments, frustrations of our plans, emotional rejection by others, etc.
Real Christian living involves a quite different response to such hardships, a response modelled on that of Christ himself, For the Christian to "really live" is to live "like Christ" and that means to live "in Christ." What does this kind living look like? It looks like constant kindness to those around us, constant forgiveness of their annoyances and the ways they reject us, the ability to be tender-hearted towards anyone in need. It is a kind of living to which we would all aspire and even occasionally achieve, but it is a kind of living that needs constant support and nourishment if it isn't to die out altogether.
The perfect model of this way of living is Christ and he is the only possible source for us, only he can give it to us and nourish it in us. He does this by his giving himself to us in the Eucharist. Here we receive the bread of life, we are united to Christ through our believing in him, listening to his word and receiving his body and blood. If this communion with him is real and not sham then we have his life in us and it must show itself by our leaving Mass every Sunday to go and live like him. Living the Christian life really means living out what we have celebrated in the Eucharist. Equally we need to learn that without this frequent return to the bread of life we will be unable to keep the spirit of Christ alive in our hearts.
Just as we need holidays so we need spiritual recreation. Our Eucharist is a source of re-creation, a source of new life in us. Here we can find new inspiration and vision through the Word of God. Here we can have our faith renewed and we are given the strength to live it out.
"He got up, ate and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb." This comes immediately after the life of Elijah has been threatened by Jezebel in verse two. However, let us briefly summarize what we know of Elijah beginning with his entrance onto the scene in chapter 17 where he makes a prophecy to Ahab about a forthcoming drought. After delivering the prophesy he is told to live beside the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan, where ravens bring him bread and meat in the morning and in the evening. His hydration needs are met by the stream beside him.
When the stream dries up during the drought, Elijah moves on to Zarephath of Sidon where a jar of flour and a jug of oil from a home in which a widow and her son live become bottomless in regard to providing food for them. When the son of the widow dies from a sickness, Elijah raises him back to life.
Three years after Elijah speaks the prophecy of the drought, Elijah confronts Ahab to inform him that the drought is the result of his family following the Baal and obeying the prophets of Baal. This confrontation leads to the gruesome bloodbath between Elijah and the prophets of Baal where Elijah proves that Yahweh is the one, true God.
Ahab tells Jezebel all that Elijah has done, and as aforementioned, Elijah is threatened by Jezebel and this causes Elijah to flee for his life to Beer-sheeba in southern Judah where he leaves his servant behind. Elijah then journeys a day into the desert and stops at a Broom tree and sits underneath it.
It is important to know what precedes what we read from the Book of Kings today; for one wonders what leads Elijah to such despair, and one may wonder why God responds to Elijah in the way He does.
Why such despair? At first glance we see a man who is called by God for an important purpose, whose needs are provided for, and who is supported one hundred percent by God in his confrontation with the prophets of Baal. Yet, it seems that Elijah has reached his breaking point.
Now he has isolated himself, from even his servant, and is wallowing in pain, fear, and depression in a lonely and seemingly Godforsaken place. He wants his life to end. He has had enough. Why?
Why? Perhaps Elijah became self-aware of his humanity, his sinfulness, his brokenness, his weakness, his mortality, his fatigue, and his human limitations and has lost sight of the glory, the power, the protectiveness, the support, the blessings, and the love of God which he has enjoyed in his ministry.
Sometimes that happens. We focus, our gaze, shifts and we suddenly feel cold and in a dark place. Perhaps Elijah felt the emptiness and quiet that follows any great victory or emotional high and was stunned by the deadly threats of Jezebel and the contrast of perceptions threw him off kilter.
Sometimes that happens. Perhaps he has realized that by being being consumed by fear and depression he has coincidentally turned his back on a God who had never turned His back on him, and now he feels ashamed, which only compounds his depression.
In the end, we do not know exactly why Elijah feels the way he does, but his feelings are real and his desire that his life will end is no small indication of the depth of this turmoil. He wishes to be sedentary. The angel must wake him not once, but twice.
The response of God is fascinating, and preachable. Clearly God has made a response; for angels are messengers from God; and although the response utilizes divine power, it is decidedly smaller in scale to the blasts of fire shooting down from heaven which consumed the holocaust earlier. Rather, we see a lone angel nudging Elijah to arise to eat a simple cake and a jug of water. When Elijah lays down again, the angel again nudges him to eat and drink more; for he has yet another mission.
No hosts of angels bearing the fixings of a delectable feast, no chariots, no theophanies of fire, earthquakes or crushing rocks. No deep, booming voice of God. No miraculous appearances of a feather-filled mattress underneath a shade-providing tent.
Instead, a simple meal providing something to eat, something to drink, and another job, another assignment, purpose.
What Elijah thought he needed was a quiet, lonely place to die; however, God knew that Elijah needed the simple staples of life and a purpose. There will be a time for theophanies and flaming chariots, but not now. This all preaches on a couple of levels. First, we would all do well to take note of the occasional spiritual, mental, and physical depression of each other. Depression knows no demographic boundaries. It effects young and old, rich and poor, the learned and the illiterate, and it infiltrates all ethnicities and races. Most of us are not licensed psychologists and psychiatrists, medical doctors, or spiritual directors, and there is certainly a place for these individuals in the treatment of depression, but we still have the insight to detect when someone we love is experiencing depression. Perhaps the most effective treatment from us mirrors the treatment of Elijah: to provide the basic, loving staples in life and a purpose: Food, water, affection, a nudge, a hug, kindness, hospitality, a shared pryer, a chore, a project, the opportunity to feel needed, an opportunity to feel the Love of God through another individual. Small things done with great love.
Second, do we ever find ourselves seeking the lonely, quiet place which does nothing for us other than amplify our depression? Do we ever find ourselves leaving behind our loved ones, our closest soul mate, and our daily work knowing that the thing we need is love and purpose?
Do we lose sight of the love of God in our lives and find our gaze fixed on darker, colder things?
We look to this story of Elijah and learn from it. We have faith that God gives us what we need. We realize that we are oftentimes used as the angels of God here on earth to provide love and purpose for those in need. We will keep our lives filled with love and purpose, especially when we feel a dark call to a lonely place.
The Gospel passage makes a contrast between eating manna which gave only transitory life and eating the bread of heaven which gives eternal life. This too is applied to belief, since "everybody who believes has eternal life" and "to hear the teaching of the Father and to learn from it is to come to me." This gives rise to two thoughts, that Jesus, contrasted with manna which stands for imperfect revelation, is the fullness of revelation, and that the healthy notion of God recognises that he is almost entirely unknowable. We cannot picture God, say after the manner of a bearded old man, without reducing him to our own level, and almost the most we can do is say that he is utterly beyond anything which we do know, even the whole created universe with its incredibly remote beginnings and its unlimited and continuing expansion. So the need for the incarnation by means of which we might come to understand God in so far as he can be understood, by means of his translation into human form. Christ is the mediator notonly sacrificial but also in understanding.
Secondly, the way we approach revelation is a sort of judgement on ourselves. This makes it fitting that we should examine and purge ourselves at the beginning of Mass, not only before communion but also before listening to God's word. If we are to be open to God's word we must first purge ourselves of the obstacles which impede a real encounter with Christ in the word. Only if we have this unlimited openness are we prepared to receive him and his message, to learn from him even though his demands may be awkward, and to believe that he and no other is the source of life. If we are not prepared to do this, we are listening only for our own judgement and condemnation by refusing him.
Finally, one must say that it is fitting that the Bread of Life which is revelation should be received in the same life-situation as the Bread of Life which is the Eucharist. For both are the mediation of something living. The life of the Church is founded on belief, without which nothing else is meaningful, and this belief is passed on not simply by the book of the Bible but by the living voice of the Church. It is then expressed in the action of the Eucharist.
Many years ago I was invited to take part in a televised debate. The subject was the last things. A professional TV presenter acted as chairman, your humble servant was the invited expert and the audience of university students was live, articulate and irreverent. The other audience - the programme was going out at prime time - was conservative Ireland, clerical and lay, still frozen in its pre-Vatican II mould. I was caught in the eye of the storm. For forty minutes I battled heroically to defend the traditional wickets of heaven, hell and purgatory with what I thought was moderate success. Others thought differently, including my bishop who wrote expressing his disappointment that I had not stuck to the simple catechism answers. With my ego bruised and my clerical prospects diminished, if not blighted, I was bloodied for a future that would hold few certainties.
Forty years later it still runs true to form. "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die." So the jingle has it and so an increasing number of people believe. Various polls have shown a surprising percentage of church-going Christians who do not believe there is a life after death. One survey of Irish university students indicated that while 72% went to church weekly, only 59% believed in the after-life.
One can trace this erosion of belief in the after life from the middle of the twentieth century. Limbo was the first casualty. The huge improvement in the infant mortality rate had much to do with that. For the better part of a thousand years, the Augustinian theory consoled countless numbers of mothers grieving the loss of their little unbaptised ones. Hell fell victim to its own lurid imagery. Nothing is more ephemeral than an image. Those who live by imagery will perish by imagery. Only 28% of those surveyed say they believe in hell. Hell's little brother, purgatory, was condemned to oblivion, and that despite the fact that a whopping 68% of the students surveyed still believe in sin. Not surprisingly, heaven, albeit denuded of its winged and harmonious choirs, lingers on. The same survey showed 56% continuing to believe in it. A pleasure-bent age is loath to part with its Disneyland in the sky.
We cannot go on so, nibbling at our faith with impunity. If some day the whole edifice of belief comes tumbling round our ears, maybe we have dislodged one brick too many. Christ warns us as he warned the Jews: It is written in the prophets: "They will all be taught by God," and to hear the teaching of the father and to learn from it, is to come to me. I tell you most solemnly, everybody who believes has eternal life.
Endless negotiations go on in areas of civil strife, attempting to bring about devolution, a new, more representative government, and the decommissioning of arms. Sometimes there is great optimism. Everything is going well, and there is an end in sight. As soon as that happens, someone from one or other side of the divide will revert to the chants and cants of yesterday, and we're back to square one again. Intransigence is defined as a refusal to come to an understanding, an unwillingness to move from an assumed stance. Religion was so ingrained in the hearts of his listeners that Jesus continually came up against that wall which precluded compromise, and all calls to change. He came that they should have life, and to live is to change, and to become perfect is the result of continuous change.
These people had been fed by an extraordinary miracle with just a few loaves and fish. It would appear that Jesus had got their attention and their interest. They asked him what God wanted them to do, and they seemed interested enough to listen to the answer. But, in today's gospel, once Jesus began to speak about a personal God, a God among them, a God who was no longer in the Holy of Holies or in the burning bush, the people closed their ears, and became obstinate again. "if, today, you hear his voice, harden not your hearts ..."
Jesus got straight into stride. He was speaking about pure gift. Even the desire to come to him, to listen to him, to respond to him was a gift from the Father. It was a whole New Covenant, compared to the rigidity of the Old Covenant they had inherited. Jesus came in person to teach them, to lead them, to nourish and save them. They had a decision to make. They were either for him or against him. He pointed directly to himself as the source of their salvation.
By pointing to the story of their ancestors in the desert, he was definitely showing that his mission was to complete the mission of Moses. That had been limited in every respect, although it was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Unlike their ancestors, they were now being offered manna that would give them eternal life, and not just sustain them for the day. He offered himself as the living bread. It was an offer they could accept or reject. As John's gospel later tells us, many of them rejected it, walked away, and no longer followed him.
There once was a family that had fallen on hard times, when the family business failed, and they lost everything. The neighbours were sympathetic, because the children were embarrassed in school after they had to move into a mobile home, and sell their house and business premises. Some of the neighbours came to the parents to offer their help, and to find out how best they might be able to help. The father told them that the one thing he wanted, more than anything in the whole world was to be able to take his wife and kids, move off to America where nobody would know them, and try to start again.
The neighbours worked on the fund-raising, and, after a certain length of time they had sufficient money for tickets for the boat from Cobh to New York. The family had never been away from home before, so they had no idea how to prepare for such a voyage. They bought bread and cheese, and packed a few boxes with sandwiches. They gathered together in a single cabin on the boat, with no desire to mix with others, in case of finding themselves embarrassed or out of their depth. On the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth days they ate sandwiches. From then on, the sandwiches began to go bad. The cheese and bread had - blue-mould on them, and they began to smell.
By now they were all in a bad way. They were sick, hungry, and deeply discouraged. With a day or two to go before arriving in New York, one little lad begged his dad for a few pennies, so he could go up on deck and buy a few sweets. The dad gave him the pennies, and off he went. He didn't return, and, after about an hour, the father was forced to go up on deck to look for him. When he came up on deck, he was totally amazed by what he saw. There were long tables, surrounded by people, and they were all eating a beautiful dinner. There in the midst of them was his son, with a plate of turkey, ham, potatoes, and vegetables in front of him, together with a large beaker of Coke. The father came up behind him and whispered "Why did you do this? You know rightly we cannot afford this." The young lad's eyes lit up as he replied "Dad, we could have had this every day. This was all included with the tickets!'
When we enter heaven and look around, Jesus could say "I never
mentioned sandwiches once in the whole gospel. I spoke of being invited
to the feast!
Prov 9:1-6. Wisdom has built her house, with seven pillars. We are invited to walk in the ways of wisdom.
Eph 5:15-20. The wise person makes the most of each passing day, alert to the will of God, and shaping our conduct accordingly.
Jn 6:51-58. Continuing Christ's discourse on the Bread of Life. Those who eat his body and drink his blood (in the Eucharist) will be raiseed up on the last day.
Theme: The bedrock of religion is gratitude for the blessings in our lives. If we wish young people to continue worshipping God, we must teach them above all to be grateful for the gift of life and all its blessings.
Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has
slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her
table. She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest
places in the town, "You that are simple, turn in here!" To
those without sense she says, "Come, eat of my bread and drink
of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in
the way of insight."
I will bless the Lord at all times;
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Which of you desires life,
Keep your tongue from evil,
Depart from evil, and do good;
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled
with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among
yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving
thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name
of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat
the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in
you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and
I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and
my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide
in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live
because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This
is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors
ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
- that we may always be grateful for the gifts God has given us.
- that we may always express our gratitude by generosity in the service and love of others.
- for all those who carry a grudge in life, that diminishes and hampers them; may they learn to set aside old hurts and make a new start.
- for a spirit of joy in the midst of adversity, that the Cross of
Christ may help us rise above all circumstances, and find a blessing
Thoughts for 20th Sunday, B
From time to time, it is a good and necessary thing to ask the question, "has my life got a goal, a purpose? What am I here in this world for? Does existence in this world have a meaning for me?" This striving to understand the purpose of life on earth was a common feature of the ancient civilisations in the Middle East, in the centuries before Christ, and it gave rise to what is called "Wisdom literature" in Sacred Scripture. The concept of wisdom is one which defies exact definition, for it was concerned, not so much with philosophical thought as with the practical living out of one's life. We could say that wisdom was the legacy about life and living that parents transmitted, as a most precious heritage, to their children. It consisted primarily of practical advice to the young on how to attain a good and successful life; but as well it tried to provide answers to people's anguish about the meaning of life and death. So it was that the home served as the focal point in the education of youth, wherein sayins and maxims such as those we find in the Book of Proverbs were passed on.
For Israel, especially, real wisdom began with the fear of God, and so a spiritual element came to the fore. "What does the Lord your God ask of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to follow all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul" (Deut 10:12). People agreed: Life was more than eating and drinking, and this was echoed in the New Testament. "Do not drug yourselves with wine," St Paul warns in the Second Reading, "this is simply dissipation." "Leave your folly and you will live," the First Reading advises us, "and walk in the ways of perception." This is a call to reflect on the meaning of life, and what we do perceive, most of us can truly say, is that each of us has a longing, an inner craving for happiness and security. And since we are God's creatures, this longing must have been implanted in us by God.
We tend however, to have two entirely separate concepts of what constitutes our happiness. On the one hand we identify it with such things as good health, prosperity, friendships, success in the here and now. Or, taking a long-term view, we could take it to mean reaching, when we die, to the eternal bliss which we call heaven. But it is an illusion to view happiness here and now and the happiness of heaven as two entirely distinct states. For our only true and perfect happiness, both on earth and in heaven, consists in the possession of God. This is the kernel of Jesus' message. "As I myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me."
While Jesus was still a little child, Mary and Joseph had begun to learn that the coming of the promised Saviour did not, for them, mean comfort, or wealth, or freedom from the hostility of officialdom. We must not base our faith and trust in God on what he does for us, but rather simply on what he is. For as well as being our God, we must come to accept him, to love him as our Father. The only thing God expects of us is that we desire him alone, a desire to be expressed in him alone. We must abandon ourselves completely to his fatherly care, his providence and love for us.
Moreover, the Christian life we are asked to live should never be one of gloom, or rigidity, or harshness. That would be a return to the false creed of Jansenism, which in essence came to regard human nature as being radically corrupt and depraved. Of course Christ had promised his Apostles at the Last Supper, "If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love." But keeping the commandments was never meant to be a thankless task. For Christ went on to say, "I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete" (Jn 15:10f). To see this in practice we should ponder as well the words of St Paul, where he says to go on singing to the Lord in our hearts while giving thanks to God, who is our Father, in the name of the Lord Jesus.
"Rejoice in the Lord always," he told the Philippians. "Again I say to you rejoice. Let your good sense be obvious to everybody. The Lord is near. Never worry about anything; but reveal to God all your desires of every kind in prayer and petition with thanksgiving, and the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Then the God of peace will be with you" (Phil 4:4f).
Thinking about temperance reminded me of part of a cautionary verse that I learnt in school. It concerned a young fellow who was much addicted to eating string, so much so that it brought about his untimely demise. His last words as he lay dying were a warning that "breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea are all the human frame requires (with that the wretched child expired!.) No doubt the author of these verses was poking a little fun at the earnest people who were a little over-concerned with balanced eating habits, and equally without doubt such humour is well-founded. There can be times when the promoter of moderation and temperance can be less temperate in his use of words that he expects his listeners to be in their use of food or drink or whatever. Preaching on temperance can lend itself to caricature simply because it is too concerned with condemning excesses, the worse the abuse the greater the danger of over-exaggeration. Most adults are aware (from their own experience of life) of the terrible tragedies hat can result from excessive indulgence in food and especially drink and drugs. All they need is a reminder of the latest statistics on road accidents due to drunkenness.
While one can't really avoid mentioning the tragedies that result from such over-indulgence the better approach to the topic of temperance would be a positive outline of the good it does and its important place in a positive form of Christian living.
Temperance is usually taken in the narrow sense of temperate use of alcohol, it would be better to widen its reference, not simply to other forms of appetite, but to take in the realization that as a Christian virtue it really means the adoption of a balanced set of priorities in life. Temperance is not simply a shrewd and calculating moderation in all things because this is the prudent way to a successful and happy life. If this is all it is then we are dealing with some merely humanist quality, perfectly laudable in its own sphere but not specifically Christian. Christian temperance is a balanced attitude to the material blessings of this life and their use which flows from the priorities laid down by Christ: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given you as well" (Mt. 6:33.) It is surely not naive to claim that the more a person is taken up with building God's kingdom on earth, the more he or she is concerned with being shaped in the spirit of the Beatitudes, th less likely it is that he or she will abuse the material goods of this life and lack control of their own appetites. Obviously we all succeed and fail to varying degrees in our following of the way of Christ, but what is important to note is that no real moderation and sense of perspective will come to our use of food and drink without the motivating power of the following of Christ, in the continuation of his mission of building up the kingdom of God on earth. The person with such a strong faith is unlikely to be intemperate. To whom then should we be speaking? To the person whose vision of life is clouded and unsure, whose uncertainty often leads him to seek too much consolation in the gratification of good eating, the inebriation of good drinking, etc. Just as there is little point in telling an alcoholic about the evils of drink (he of all people knows them only too well), so often what the intemperate need is not warning and scolding but a positive vision of the goodness of God and the possibilities of he life that he has given them.
This I take to be the drift of the statement in today's second reading "Do not get drunk with wine... but be filled with the Spirit," the only real antidote to intemperance for the Christian is to be more filled up with concern for God and more open to the gift of his Spirit "for the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17.)
Perhaps I should conclude with some justification for taking up the topic of temperance today since it does not appear to be derived from any of the readings except incidentally from the second. One of the themes which runs through the readings is that of wisdom and her offer of life in the form of a meal. Too often in the Old Testament wisdom takes on the garb of a merely materialist prudence; it ultimately goes beyond this only in the person of Christ, the wisdom of God. He, too, offers life in the form of a meal, his own body and blood. To be truly wise is to take up his offer, to accept him in faith and ultimately to receive him, to be filled with him. This involves more than a ritual action in church on a Sunday. It involves an entering into his sacrifice in our practice of loving others from moment to moment. It is this which is true wisdom and which strikes at the root of all intemperance because it turns us from our own needs and gratification to the constant needs around us. The person who is so filld with the love of Christ and his body, who really sees the hope he offers through his life, cannot be filled with any of the things of this life.
With Eucharistic Theology, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the mystery and profundity of transubstiation. But in today's Gospel, Jesus keeps it simple for us. As preachers, sometimes it is good to simply respect and embrace the mystery and profundity of it all and continue to keep it simple.
When experienced athletes take training workshops, the instructor oftentimes begins with the absolute basics to ensure that the fundamental positionings and postures of the body have not gotten sloppy or lax; for the rest of the physical technique relies upon the absolute basics for excellence and achievement. Perhaps it is enough this weekend to illustrate what is fundamentally communicated and then draw similar parallels.
Here are the simple facts that Jesus communicates: Earthly bread sustains earthly life. It helps us grow. Heavenly bread sustains heavenly (eternal) life. It also helps us grow. Jesus is that heavenly bread. When we ingest it (Him), we enjoy a special intimacy with Jesus. He literally abides in us.
Here is a Homily skeleton which can be dressed with some personal facts. With earthly food and drink we live. Outside of self-imposed fasts, or surgery preparation, it is unlikely that any of us have been deprived of food for substantial periods of time. From the day we were born we have been ingesting food each day in order to sustain our earthly lives. We all know what hunger feels like, and we all know what kind of weakness and irritability accompanies that hunger.
Without earthly food we die. Although starvation and dehydration may not be part of our daily, observable surroundings, we know this is true. We see this fact reported on the nightly news when countries are hit with famine, droughts, and disasters. We see this fact reported when we learn of a person who is trapped in a space from which he can not be rescued in a timely manner.
Earthly food helps us grow. There are lots of stories to illustrate this fact in our personal lives: growth spurts, grocery bills from a household of teenage boys, and the intentional high protein intake of bodybuilders to name a few.
Earthly food can produce great joy! we all have favorite foods, some of which are more nutritional than others; but the fact remains that when we ingest certain foods a kind of intimacy is enjoyed with that food that produces a satisfied, warm glow to our faces.
All of the above facts can be mirrored in the ingestion of Jesus, our Heavenly food that gives us heavenly (eternal) life. With our heavenly food we live forever. although we will all die an earthly death we will live forever. Without heavenly food we die. No heavenly food, no eternal life. Heavenly food helps us grow. The need for regular, earthly food intake to help us physically grow is paralleled to the need for the regular ingestion of heavenly to help us spiritually grow. Heavenly food can produce great joy! The reception of Jesus, our heavenly food, need not be an occasion for solemn, dreary faces. The experience is to be savored and enjoyed. The intimacy with this food can produce the same satisfied, warm glow that earthy food can yield.
Perhaps this is the weekend to keep it simple. If we do not we might find ourselves quarreling saying: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?
The most striking point about this passage is the brutal realism with which it speaks of eating the flesh of the Son of Man. The Greek is even more explicit, using a rough word which might be translated "chew" or even "tear at." There is no doubt that we have moved from the idea of accepting the Bread of Life by belief to receiving the Living Bread as food. This indicates a most important basic attitude to the Eucharist it is not the body of Christ to be adored or reverenced either in the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament or in the reception of it, but it is the body of Christ as food to be assimilated. This is not to say that adoration is not due to it, but it is to emphasise that the basic purpose of it is not so that it may rest but so that it may work. It is real food because it nourishes and transforms those who receive it. As with any food, of course, the beneficial effect it has is conditioned by the state of the recipient. If the recipient of normal food is diseased or unfit for that food, it will ave a harmful effect. So in the case of the eucharistic food the recipient must have certain dispositions and will benefit according to the healthiness of those dispositions. Without faith there is no possibility of nourishment, as indeed is suggested by the whole of the previous discourse in John 6, where belief has been central and the Eucharist only peripheral. But, apart from the basic requirement of faith, the more affinity to Christ and desire to draw nearer and follow him, the more the nourishment provided by this food. If our desire is weak we receive little; if it is strong then we are opening ourselves to Christ's full working.
It is important that, even in John, the context of his death is suggested. This is, of course, implied by the notion of eating his body, but is suggested more directly by the similarity of the phrase which occurs also at the last supper in the synoptic gospels (see COMMENTARY above.) So the context of sacrifice is directly built in to the Eucharist and to the Bread of Life itself, and by receiving it we submit ourselves, too, to his sacrifice. For the true disposition of nourishment we need therefore to commit ourselves entirely to the will of the Father, as Jesus did, in an act of open-ended and unreserved obedience.
But besides eating the flesh of the Son of Man in his sacrificial death, we also drink his blood. This notion may well seem even more crudely cannibalistic than the idea of eating his flesh. The ideas behind ritual cannibalism are not, of course, wholly foreign to the Christian eucharistic meal, for the purpose of primitive cannibalism was always to partake of the qualities, strength, courage, etc., of the victim. To the Jews especially the drinking of blood was abhorrent because the rules of kosher food prescribe that blood must always be let first, since it is sacred to the Lord, for it contains the life of a creature which belongs to God alone. In the case of Christ, then, by drinking his blood sacramental we are partaking of his life and intensifying his life in us. This sacramental reality is one reason why communion under both kinds is felt to be so significant. By the intensification of his life in us we may understand two things: firstly the life of the Spirit of Christ is strengthened in us, so that e are enabled more firmly to act according to the Spirit. Secondly, Christ's life in us is, of its nature, eternal life, so it strengthens within us the life-principle which will carry us on into eternal life; he who eats Christ's flesh lives in Christ and Christ in him, and he has already eternal life.
Two things intrigue me about graffiti-artists: when do they scribble on walls, and why? To judge by the sheer output of their work in a city like Paris, where there is hardly a single building which has escaped their attention, it must require the services of a veritable army of aerosol artists. On the thirty-kilometre train route from Charles de Gaulle airport to Gare du Nord every foot of the railway sidings in both directions is adorned. Even the trains themselves have not been overlooked. Yet nobody has ever seen one of them in action. More intriguing still is why they ply their art so liberally. Exhibitionism, whether in children or in adults, is almost always the expression of the need for attention. In the old days, when the art was in its infancy, messages were easily decipherable when schoolboys initialled their boredom on wooden desks and young lovers their love on trees. Adult contributions invariably took the form of crude political slogans. From its primitive days the art form now appears to haveentered its abstract or illiterate phase. Their indecipherable scribblings defy my best efforts to interpret. Perhaps it is a reaction to the banalities of modern advertising. Be that as it may, one thing is sure: they axe still screaming at passers-by for attention. And those that are legible almost invariably articulate a grievance or a grudge.
The Irish writer, Sean O Faolain, in, must have found the solitary exception, which he later chose as the title of his autobiography. It read simply: Vive moi! (Hurrah for me!) That scribbler was a person after the Psalmist's own heart.
I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise always on my lips; in the Lord my soul shall make its boast. The humble shall hear and be glad.
This is the sort of psalm St Paul urged the Ephesians to sing:
"And go on singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, so that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God who is our Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Probably, the oldest and most authentic name given to the Mass throughout its history is the Eucharist. It derives from the Greek verb "to give thanks" which in turn derived from Christ's gesture at the Last Supper as he took the bread and wine "and when he had- given thanks" he gave to his disciples. So, the Eucharistic Prayer always begins with, "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God/It is right to give him thanks and praise." It is a pity when the young ask their elders why they should attend Sunday Mass, we don't give them the simple truthful answer. They go to thank the Lord for their existence. The young may be careless but they are not ungrateful. Christ himself at the Last Supper was, as a good practising Jew, celebrating the feast of the Passover. Writing on the wall has a longer and more hallowed history than we generally credit it with. It was through the sprinkling of the blood of lambs on the walls of their houses that God chose to liberate the Jews from slavery. Their Passover and our Mass wereborn out of gratitude for our redemption.
Jesus continues to hammer home the truth, even though many of them will refuse to accept it, and he will lose them as followers.
A gifted young student graduated from an agricultural college. Full of enthusiasm, he said to an elderly farmer "I have a book that will tell you how to farm ten times better than you are doing now." After a pause, the farmer said "But I already know how to farm ten times better than I'm doing now!" The problem Jesus had with his listeners is that they knew it all. Those who had most to unlearn were the ones who found it most difficult to be open to something new.
What had gone before should have served these people better. They were quite familiar with the concept. God had given them bread from heaven on many a previous occasion. The bird brought a loaf of bread to the prophet. They were familiar with the sacredness attached to food, and they always followed a certain ritual in eating. What kept tripping them up was the simplicity of Incarnation. Their God was in the Holy of Holies, or in the burning bush. He could never appear just as one of them. If they refused to accept that possibility, then they could never accept that he could be available to them in the most ordinary, common, stable food they ate, bread.
God can come to us in any guise he chooses. He can make himself present in bread, just as he can in the thunderclouds. He had a strong desire to be seen to be, and to be accepted as genuine nourishment and food for eternal life. If I live on ordinary bread, then my life is limited. If I live on the Bread of Life that comes from God, then I live an eternal life. That eternal life begins now. "They who eat my body and drink my blood have everlasting life." In an earlier part of this chapter from John's gospel, we heard the people say "Lord, give us that bread every day of our lives." There are times when it seems they get what he's at, and then they return to their stubbornness, and their unwillingness to understand or to listen. Jesus is passing on eternal life from the Father. He lives by the power of the living Father, and, if we receive him as our food, we too will receive that same eternal life. We are invited to share at the table of life, to share the Bread of life, so as to inherit eternal life.
Eucharist, sharing in the food from God that transmits eternal life, is a sacred and extraordinary gift, and it is something to which we can never claim to have a right. It is an extraordinary privilege that should fill us with awe, reverence, and with gratitude. When God made his home in Mary, she sang the Magnificat, "because he that is mighty has gone great things for me, and holy is his name. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has regarded the lowliness of his servant." This is total gift, and it is all the work of an almighty generous God, who loves us deeply. "God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, so that they who believe in him may have eternal life Jesus is like my umbilical cord with the Father. To remain attached I must continue to be attached to Jesus. "Remain in me if the branch is separated from the vine, it withers, and is cast in the fire. . "Jesus is the hand of my Father that is held out to take hold of me, and to keep me within the life of the Trinity. Bycoming to share in the meal provided by the Father I continue to retain membership within the Trinity. In Eucharist I am fed and nourished by the Bread of Life, and I become part of a life that is unending
What we call "Holy Communion" is but a part of what we understand as "Eucharist." We have the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of Eucharist. We are nourished by the word of God and by the Bread of Life. We bring what gifts we have," what talents or good will we possess, and we offer those to God. We may not have much, but whatever we have is enough. God accepts our gift, and, in return, he gives me himself in Eucharist. "Having given us Christ Jesus will the Father not surely give us everything else?'
If time permitted, it would be a worthwhile exercise to read today's gospel once again before we approach the altar for Communion. I am saying "yes" to the gospel, and I am declaring my acceptance of the offer that Jesus is making. This is a personal commitment, a personal acceptance. I accept the offer of the Father, and I welcome the coming of Jesus. I can personally experience Incarnation, and, like Mary, when she visited Elizabeth, I can carry Jesus to others.
Everything to do with Eucharist is pure gift. Even the willingness and readiness to accept and believe it is, in itself, a gift. "Flesh and blood does not reveal this." I ask the Spirit of God to enlighten me, to increase and strengthen my faith, to enkindle within me the fires of divine love, and to stir up within me a zeal and enthusiasm for things of God. With Thomas I cry out "My Lord and my God." I am allowed do so much more than merely touch his wounds. The Jesus who is speaking in today's gospel has not yet been glorified, but the one who comes to me in Eucharist now has the victory, and all authority has now been entrusted to him, in heaven and on earth. He is Lord of the Kingdom, and "his Kingdom shall never end."
The telephone rang in the house, and was answered by a tiny whispered voice "Hello." "Can I speak to your father?" asked the caller. "No, I'm sorry, he's busy" came the whispered reply. "Well, can I speak to your mother?" Once again, a whispered reply "No, I'm sorry, she's busy." The caller tried a different angle. "Is there anyone else there?" "Yes" came the one word whispered response. The caller was beginning to get annoyed, but he struggled to keep his cool, as he asked "Who else is there?" "There's the fire brigade, the police, and an ambulance," the little voice whispered, without any great emotion. "Can I speak to one of the men from the fire brigade?" Once again" No, I'm sorry, they're busy." "Well, can I speak to the driver of the ambulance?" persisted the caller, already running out of patience. However, once again, came the whispered reply "No, I'm sorry, he's busy." The caller raised his voice, determined to take control of the situation, and shouted "Tell one of the policemen that I want to speakto him." To his utter frustration the whispered reply persisted "No, I'm sorry, they're busy." This brought one final outburst from the caller. "What's happening there? What are they all doing there?" With completely unfazed voice, the answer came back "They're looking for me!'
On several occasions the apostles came to Jesus to tell him that
everybody was looking for him. How frustrated he must have felt as he
spoke to them. "They have eyes but they see not; they have ears
but they hear not ..."
Josh 24:1-2, 15-18. When the people reach the Promised Land they have a vital decision to make - whether to continuing serving the one true God or to "go native" and serve the gods of Canaan.
Eph 5:25-32. Paul's image of a marriage relationship expresses the faithful love that exists between Christ and the Church.
Jn 6:60-69. When many turn away because they cannot accept his teaching, Jesus' apostles face the same choice: " Will you also leave me?" Peter answers, "Lord, to whom can we go?"
Theme: Some parts of the Bible message are consoling; others are less palatable. We tend to tailor the gospel to fit our lifestyle. Jesus was prepared to lose disciples rather than compromise.
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned
the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they
presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people,
"Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors-Terah
and his sons Abraham and Nahor-lived beyond the Euphrates and served
I will bless the Lord at all times;
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
He keeps all their bones;
Evil brings death to the wicked,
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave
himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with
the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself
in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind-yes,
so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands
should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his
wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes
and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because
we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his
father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become
one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ
and the church.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe."
For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?"
Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have
the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you
are the Holy One of God."
- that we may strengthen our commitment to the gospel and refuse to compromise it.
- that we may always be committed in private to what we profess in public.
- for the leaders in our church, that they may value our Christian heritage, and find effective ways to commend it in today's world.
- that we may not discredit the gospel in the eyes of the young by
our own lack of credibility.
Thoughts for 21st Sunday, B
I wonder how most of us would react to being told that there was a crisis of holiness in the Church today. Would we agree? If we did agree, how many of us would immediately associate it with the decline in vocations, the crises facing priests and religious? Perhaps not so many of us as would have done so ten or fifteen years ago, but there is still a tendency in many parts of the Church to see holiness as some kind of professional pursuit, something for those with "vocations." The fact is that if there were such a thing as a crisis of holiness (and who could be the judge of that?) it would exist at a more fundamental level in the Church; not at the level of religious vocation but where such vocations are said to begin - in the family, in marriage.
We all need the reminder that marriage is the most general vocation to holiness in the Church. Every Christian who marries is called to holiness, to integrity, through and in their marriage. The idea would probably make many of our people decidedly nervous, partly because they have too strict, austere or pious a notion of what holiness means, and who consequently find it hard to see what it might mean in their marriage.
There are those who would be prepared to admit that the married can try to become holy, but they would see this as some kind of devotional or charitable activity outside their married lives. They would tend to see their striving for holiness and their marriage as two parallel lines of their lives which don't intersect with one another. (Obviously this is an exaggerated statement of the case but it is expressive of a dichotomy which seems to underlie many attitudes in the Church, especially those which see the Christian understanding of marriage as a body of negative restrictions.)
What we have to emphasise is that the first and basic way to holiness for the married person is through their married and family life. We have to see clearly that this is not some kind of second best for those who have neither the talent nor the zeal for apostolic works. It has also to be clear that the path to holiness in marriage is not some kind of tricky and hazardous pathway through a bog of negative rules and regulations but rather the call to be holy by reflecting the love that Christ has for the Church. This call to love in Christ is realised simply by the way you love your husband or wife and children.
To love your wife, your husband and your children - it sounds banal, it sounds like what we would expect to find in most homes on our street! Is such a general expectation the ideal of holiness?
If this is a problem for us it may be that we still see holiness too much as a reality of the other world, a world that we have to enter in order to be holy. We have still to learn that holiness is really for us the perfection, the making whole of this world which is destined in Christ to become a new creation. What we have to learn is that the apparently ordinary things of this world are the medium of God's transforming power in Christ.
So the transformation of the married Christian's life must begin with their showing love as husband, wife, mother, father. What soon becomes clear is that to exercise this love in Christ is not so ordinary as at first appears, and where it appears in all its clarity it has the quality of the miracuIous. Consider briefly the secular reality of romantic and exotic love which appears as the basis of so many relationships of our permissive age. The statistics of breakdown suggest that such love is becoming less and less capable of sustaining a permanent relationship. In contrast to the self-concern which marks so much of modern living the Christian ideal of dedicated, unselfish faithful and life-long love, actually begins to look more and more like a holy ideal, it almost looks like a reality of another world.
Most of us have met people with the extraordinary courage and perseverance to remain faithful and loving despite the strain of the prolonged illness of their partner, separation due to conditions of employment, tremendous loneliness or poverty. These are, of course, situations of trial, hopefully they are not the only conditions where true love can appear, but they are a true test of what is involved. The commitment that is made in Christian marriage is the commitment to no longer being the sole master or mistress of your own life and destiny. The married Christian can no longer think in terms of "my life" - everything is now subject to another. This commitment is not one-sided of course, it is mutually shared but this hardly makes it less mysterious, it is the mystery of Christ's love, laying down your life for another. It is in and through this loving relationship in the joy of giving and receiving love that the married Christian is called to holiness.
Today is a good day to say something about marriage. Yet that isn't a good way of putting it. The homeliest would want to readdress the ideal of Christian marriage which is contained in the lesson from Effusions. It is not a talk or lecture in dogmatic or moral theology, nor simply exhortation, nor, even less so, condemnation. And, of course, the homilist, in most cases, will be a priest, and therefore not married himself.. These may be seen as restrictions on what can be said. Even more important is the context of a homily given at a Sunday Eucharistic assembly.
We are a people who have gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. Like Simon Peter, we believe in Jesus and in his saving mysteries. We want that faith nourished. That does not leave us without challenge. Each homilist must be Joshua as well. He will give the lead. "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." He will remind us of all that God has done for us. We say "Eucharist."
Some people will have found difficulty in understanding the reading from Ephesians, not just its theology but its attitude to women. But this is not the place to argue. Some who think that St Paul was anti-feminist will want to maintain that position. Yet it is worth moving away from his emphasis on subordination on the parts of both husband and wife. What Paul said is conditioned by the first century world in which he lived. Yet he, too, moved away to a new vision.
God reveals himself to us in Christ. Paul had been entrusted by God with knowledge of this mystery. He tells us about it. What he knows about Christ he can apply to our situations: we must give way to one another in obedience to Christ; married people should reflect the obedience that Christ gave to his Father..
In the end, people who believe in Christian marriage should take Christ as their model - a model of obedience and love, honour, respect and fidelity. Christ was obedient to the Father; he loves the Church as his bride; he honours the Church as his own body; he looks after it, always. Christian marriage should have the same characteristics.
That is what the Church sets before us today - a high ideal, but one that can be lived by people who really believe that Christ has the message of eternal life. Many people live it, for they rely on a message that empowers, for it is spirit and life.
It is a message for believers, for people who feel that there is no where else to go, for people who feel that there is no need to seek else-where that what they are now doing at this Eucharist.
All three readings circle round the question of the source of life. The first affirms the commitment of Israel to Yahweh rather than to other deities. The second teaches that Christ is the source of nourishment, energy and guidance. And the third reading sets up an opposition between the flesh which has nothing to offer and the Spirit of Christ which offers eternal life. The fundamental attitude of all three, then, is expressed by Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life and we believe."
There are so many alternative attractions and so many alternative offers of salvation in its various forms available that the fundamental credo of Christianity needs reaffirmation: salvation and life arc to be found in Christ alone. But does this mean the rejection of all the other offers? Are the hippies wrong in their search for unstructured simplicity? Are those wrong who search for peace and union with the divine by the way of eastern mysticism? The fact that in the modern world so many people are turning to solutions other than Christianity is to the Christian primarily a cause for self-examination, both on his own count and with relation to others. How much in fact does he draw the inspiration and motivation for what he does from Christ? Is Christ his source of life or is success or wealth or pleasure? And with relation to others, if the Christian believes that Christ is the way he must ask himself why others are blind to that truth. And the answer must often lie in the attitudes and reactions betrayed y Christians themselves. By our narrowness and failure to exemplify the values which we believe to be in Christianity we can blind others to those values and drive them to seek them elsewhere. For if Christ is the final revelation of the Father he must contain all that can contribute to the fulfilment of human longing.
Does this mean that the Church has a monopoly of hope for mankind? The answer must be given on two levels. Firstly the Christian must hold that it is through Christ that the world has been redeemed. However imperfect the ways in which Christians exemplify the community of salvation and so disguise the saving work of Christ, however much true values are better exemplified outside the Church as we know it than within the Church, nevertheless these values have their transforming and saving power only because of Christ's saving work. There have been great "saints" who have never known the reality of the Christian message and yet have reached their sanctity through other channels, such as the great eastern religions or single-minded devotion to great humanitarian ideals. But without Christ's work their efforts would have been vain.
On a second level we must remember the distinctions made at the Second Vatican Council about imperfect communion with the Church. It is impossible to say that those who believe in and follow Christ, even in other Churches and ecclesiastical communities than the Catholic Church, are not members of Christ, and so it is impossible to deny that they draw their strength from Christ. They share with us at least the more central truths of Christianity and so are not wholly divorced even from the visible body of Christ. To cast the net still wider, those who are searching for Christ or even for belief itself and live by the values and principles which have been sanctified by Christ - they too live by Christ and could, if they only saw more clearly, say "Lord, to whom shall we go?'
There is a programme on French television called L'Heure de Verité (The Moment of Truth). The US has a similar one called Meet the Press. A politician or prominent public figure is confronted for - an hour in front of the cameras by a panel of experts/journalists on the main issues of the day. It is less a quest for truth than a ploy to force the interviewee into making damaging admissions. The public is led to believe that the politician is putting his reputation, if not his career, on the line. The journalists have raked through previous recorded statements of their victim to show his inconsistency and lack of credibility. But politicians have become adept at deflecting this type of assault, claiming their previous statements are misquoted or taken out of context. For the public it is just another form of spectator sport. They are more interested in the performance of the politician than in the truth. His supporters are as confirmed in their support as his opponents in their opposition while the uncommittedremain more uncommitted than ever. Far from avoiding such confrontations, politicians actually seek them, on the assumption that, at least for them, all publicity is good publicity. What really frightens a politician is the whiff of a ballot-box. For them that is the real moment of truth. Here too they have become adept at confining it to its constitutional time limit. Motions of censure in the French National Assembly are skilfully stage-managed to ensure the maximum exposure and the greatest suspense with the narrowest of victories for the government. No sitting politician ever wants to stand for election.
If politicians are nothing else, they are fairly representative of those who put them there. Unlike them, we do not have to face a regular scrutiny by public ballot to test our commitment. We can get by with a minimum of private conviction and a maximum of public profession, at least in the matter of religion. Recent surveys indicate that more Catholics in Ireland go to Mass on Sunday than believe in God. Other core-beliefs of the Christian faith fared even worse, some yielding remarkably low percentages. Recent voting patterns on divorce and abortion might well reflect more concern for our public image than our private conviction. In any case there are enough question marks hanging over our religious commitment to cause concern.
Surveys will never adequately reveal the true level of our commitment. Whatever can be gleaned from private conversation suggests a steady rejection of the "hard sayings" of the gospel. It is symptomatic of our time. Modern people seek to tailor their religion to fit their lifestyle. There are many occasions when Christ could say to us, as he did to his disturbed followers:
"Does this upset you?" He was prepared to lose his followers rather than compromise the truth. "After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him." At least they had what is so often singularly lacking in our religious conviction, honesty. And so too had Peter, who presumably did not find Christ's teaching any more palatable than the others. For him as for us, what other alternative have we? "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life ..."
The gospels of the past few Sundays have been leading up to this point. Many of the hearers left him, while others decided to stay with him.
Fishing was one of the great passions of my childhood. The tackle was basic, and the catches were modest. One of the memories that stands out in my mind today was the way I kept running all over the place. The place where I was fishing was chosen by me, because I decided that this was the ideal place to catch fish. However, as soon as someone caught a fish further along the lake, I gathered my belongings and ran off to fish there. Within minutes, perhaps someone else had hooked a fish back at the place I had just left! With hindsight, I don't think I had what it takes to become a good fisherman! When I read today's gospel, I recalled those times. Stability, consistency, and "stickabiity" were not my greatest virtues!
This story contains something that is implicit in all passages of the gospel, i.e., it forces you to make a choice, to come to a decision. Jesus had the rare ability to divide a group down the middle, in so far as he offered a straight option - you were either for him, or against him. He himself was committed onto death to his mission, and to all that was best for us. In today's gospel we are told that even his disciples complained. He was used to being in conflict with his enemies, but when he could not depend on the loyalty of his friends, it was time to call them to account.
In a way Jesus was hard on his followers, because, by the nature of what he was offering them, it could not just be some sort of an a la carte menu, from which they could choose whatever suited them. "Human effort accomplishes nothing," he told them. This was the work of God, and they were in no position to sit in judgement on God. He spoke about belief in him, because he was inviting them to accept something now, and, perhaps, at some future time~ they might come to understand it. When he spoke of the Spirit, he spoke of a fountain of living water rising up from within a person. In other words, it began in the heart, and might, possibly, reach the head some other time.
When his followers turned around and walked away, he didn't run after them and try to reason with them. That was not his way of doing things. Rather he turned to those who remained and challenged them. He needed to know that their decision to remain was definite, and not just a failure to make any decision, and to end with inaction. There are three groups of people in every gathering. There are those who cause things to happen; there are those who watch things happening; and there are those who haven't a clue what is happening! Once again, Peter was the one who stepped in to fill the breach. "Lord, to whom else can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. We know, and we believe that you are the Christ, the Holy One of God." Losing the others was worth it, if it left him with loyal followers like Peter.
A group of Christians were gathered for a secret prayer meeting in Russia, at the height of the persecution of all Christian churches.
Suddenly the door was broken down by the boot of a soldier, who entered
the room, and faced the people with a gun in his hand. They all feared
the worst. He spoke. "If there's any of you who doesn't really
believe in Jesus, then, get out now while you have a chance." There
was a rush to the door. A small group remained, those who had committed
themselves to Jesus, and who were never prepared to run from him. The
soldier closed the door after the others, and, once again, he stood
in front of those who remained, gun poised. Finally, a smile appeared
on his face, as he turned to leave the room, and he whispered "Actually,
I believe in Jesus, too, and you're much better off without those others!'
Deut 4:1-2,6-8. Moses again urges the people to heed God's words and observe them diligently; this is their source of life and wisdom.
Jm 1:17ff. It is not enough to listen to the word of God. We must put it into practice. St. James gives concrete examples of what this means.
Mk 7:1-8ff. In the clash between Jesus and the Pharisees he accuses them of substituting human regulations for the law of God, so that their worship of God has become mere lip-service.
Theme: The way to wisdom is in keeping God's commandments; but we must distinguish between the letter of the law and its spirit, to really follow the example of Jesus.
So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.
You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom
and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes,
will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!"
For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our
God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes
and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you
O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation
or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us
birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first
fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone
be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does
not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness
and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted
word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word,
and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)
So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to
me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that
by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come:
fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness,
envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within,
and they defile a person."
- that we may always come to the help of those in need, in our community.
- that officials will be sensitive to the needs of those they encounter and help them to solve their problems.
- for widows and orphans and immigrants everywhere, that they may find a welcome in their new community.
- for a deeper sense of the commandments, to see them not as mere external commands, but as guidelines to a loving way of life.
Thoughts for 22nd Sunday, B
It has ever been somewhat of a mystery why burial, in ancient times, was rarely, if ever, permitted within the walls of a city, while one of the commonest places for tombs was by the side of public roads. You can still, to this day, see a great number of these latter, still bearing their inscriptions, after close on 2,000 years, just outside Rome, along the Via Appia, the Appian Way. At one time in particular, in Palestine, just before the Feast of Passover, the roads to Jerusalem were thronged with pilgrims coming to celebrate this great annual feast. But, according to the Mosaic Law, anyone who touched a dead body, or came into contact with a tomb, became automatically unclean, and was thereby debarred from attending the ceremonies of Passover in Jerusalem. To prevent the occurrence of such a disaster it became a Jewish custom to whitewash all wayside tombs in advance of the Feast, so that they became more conspicuous. So in the Spring sunshine these tombs stood out, sparkling white, and almost lovely, alhogh within they were full of decaying bodies or bones, whose touch would defile.
That, according to Jesus, was the precise picture of what the Pharisees were, whited sepulchres, men who seemed intensely religious in their every outward action, and yet could look down with sinful contempt on those they regarded as sinners. The name Pharisees put into English means "separated ones," - separated because they distanced themselves from gentiles, sinners, and even Jews whom they deemed less observant of the Law than themselves. With haughty arrogance they dismissed all such people as being "a rabble that knew not the Law." In today's gospel reading we see how the Scribes and Pharisees had come to listen to Jesus, but instead of pondering on what he had to say they began to pass judgment on the behaviour of his disciples. It was the age-old tactic of lowering a man's credibility by disparaging his adherents.
The charge they laid against the disciples was that they were eating without having first washed their hands, and so were to be deemed in contravention of the traditions of the elders. This typified the air of self-righteousness of the Pharisees, which derived not from any interior, or personal, relationship with God, but from observing purely human customs. This is not to say that all the Pharisees were bad. Some, like Nicodemus, were sincere searchers for the truth. But there is nothing harder than for a good man not to know that he is good, and once he sees himself as good, pride intervenes, and his goodness is tarnished, no matter how sincere the image he outwardly projects before others. However, there was always the possibility that the Pharisee in attempting to fulfil every little detail of the Law could end up as a bigoted legalist, or indeed as a man of burning devotion to God. This is not simply a Christian verdict on the Pharisees, but rather that of the Jews themselves. For the Talmud, which is th Jewish written code of civil and canon Law, cites seven different types of Pharisee, only one of which was seen as being good. So when Jesus condemned the Pharisees as being whited sepulchres, many of those listening would have agreed with him.
The words of Jesus in today's reading, however, have a message also for each of us. They are asking us to look inwards into the depths of our own souls. Deep within us God has written his Law, and it is our honour and obligation to obey it, as God unfolds it to our conscience. We will be judged according to the way we have acted, based on what we, in our hearts, have believed to be right and true and proper. "It is from within," Jesus is saying to us today, "that evil arises." He is calling upon us to look beyond the troubled situations, the confrontations, the problems of our own time, and strive for greater personal spiritual purity of heart. Steer clear of stupid conflicts and sterile slavery to mere human customs and taboos, he is bidding us. Instead open up to the Holy Spirit's word of life, which unknown to us, is fashioning a new world in our time.
What we should be aiming for, striving for, is summed up in the words of sacred scripture (Ps 51): "A new heart create for me, Oh God, and put a steadfast spirit within me." This is God's work, not something we can achieve of ourselves. "Without me," Christ told his disciples, "you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5). But with him, we are assured, all things are possible for those who love him.
Most Catholics are aware that some kind of Biblical renewal has taken place in the Church. This perception may occur through the awareness of Bible groups springing up in many parishes. However, for most people the point comes home through the emphasis on scripture readings in the liturgy. Strange sounding names, like today's Deuteronomy, begin to appear and perhaps many of our people are wondering what it's all for. Today's first and second readings offer some grounds for the homilist to present some reflections on the place of scripture in the life of the Christian.
The basic appreciation of the scriptures for any Christian must be to value them as the word of God, not a word spoken in isolation but a word spoken to each one of us. This appreciation is blunted for many people today simply because the written word is less and less used as a medium for personal communication. The one image which may express this idea is that of the Letter. Most of us have had times in our lives when writing and receiving letters has been important. People away from home for long stretches of time, at work, in hospital, in jail, they all appreciate the news the gossip the affection that a letter brings - the letter reestablishes contact for them. So the written word is not just for students, book-worms, serious types, it can be much a part of our personal relationships. It helps to bring people back into contact with one another, those who were strangers are so no longer and those who were losing touch are reunited, the written word still helps to bridge all kinds of distances between peopl.
For many people God can seem remote and distant, not someone to be personally known. Yet it is a fundamental of our revelation that this distant transcendent God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. The Deuteronomist could see this idea of God's closeness as something special and unique to Israel: "For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us." A basic expression of this nearness of God is the fact that be speaks to his people, he gives them his word - a word that was spoken but now comes in written form as well. So the scriptures, as the written word of God, are there to bring God close to us, to make him known to us. If we feel that we don't know God at all or that we are losing touch with him, then reading and reflecting on the scriptures is one basic way of overcoming the distance.
In reading the scriptures it is important not just to treat them as a book or books about God. They are a living word which we cannot simply study objectively from the outside, rather they engage us in conversation (if we are really open to listen to the One speaking) - they open us up to God. In the end they may actually tell us more about ourselves than they do about God, they can show us ourselves in a new light, the way God sees us.
Of course we are all aware that God is all-seeing, that he knows our resting and our rising, all our ways lie open to him, before him we can have no pretence. It is also true that entering into dialogue with the scriptures will help us to see ourselves fully revealed before his gaze, seeing ourselves mirrored in his word we can have no pretence. "The word of God is living and active... discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden... (Heb. 4:12-13.)
It is this same metaphor of being able to see ourselves in the scriptures that the Letter of James uses in order to emphasise the practical results that should follow from reading and reflecting upon the scriptures... the metaphor that the scriptures are a mirror. However there is nothing vain or narcissistic about self-consideration in this mirror, since this mirror has the effect of turning our gaze beyond ourselves unto God and the doing of his will.
"For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing" (James 1:23-25.)
The practically-minded James saw that the purpose of listening to God's word, of reading the scriptures is to help us to know what God wants of us, and at the same time to motivate us to fulfil his will through a deeper knowledge and love of him. With this achievement comes the greatest gift of the word which is life and salvation (cf. James 1:21; Deut. 4:1.)
The homilist might conclude with an appeal for new members for his parish's Bible Group. (If there isn't one, now might be a good time to moot the idea.)
This Sunday's readings bring out the differences between the two great branches of Judaism which emerged from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.: Christianity and Pharisaism. The main difference hinges around the place of Law in each system. To a large extent Christianity gave to Jesus the central position that the Law, their beloved Torah, had for the Pharisees. For instance much of what was said about a personal wisdom in the Old Testament, which was applied to the Torah in the later books of the Bible and in Intertestamental Literature, was applied to Jesus in the New Testament (e.g. Jn 1:2-3.)
However, it would be wrong to think of this love for the Law as mere legalism. For the Jews, the Torah was a personal thing, there before the world began, whose advice God took when God resolved to create the world:
The Torah was the basis and foundation of the universe that each faithful Jew had received as a priceless gift to guide and direct his way, no matter where he lived or what his occupation (Sean Freyne, The World of the New Testament.)
The great insight of the Pharisees, an insight shared by Jesus, was to insist that the presence of God was not only to be experienced in the Temple but was available to everyone in his or her everyday life and business. The only difficulty for them was that since God was the Holy God one needed to be holy to meet that presence; and holiness at that time included ritual cleanliness. It was for this reason that they put so much emphasis on such things as "the washing of cups, pots and bronze dishes." I remember once going into a Jewish kitchen in a hostel in Israel and being nearly blown out of it for putting my hand on a jug that had been made ritual clean. It is easy to see how legalism is perhaps the inevitable consequence of such an emphasis.
But Christianity has not been immune from legalism either, so perhaps a homily on today's readings could concentrate on the way in which all of us can narrow down original, beautiful religious insights, such as the Jews had of the Torah, into the mere fulfilment of obligation. The reason we do this is that we search for security in religion instead of being opened up to the demands of the "pure, unspoilt religion" which the second reading today demands of us.
The occasion on which Jesus formally takes issue with the Pharisees on the matter of their attitude to tradition provides an occasion on which we also might well consider our attitude to tradition within the Church. There is always about Jesus's teaching a certain freshness and unhampered quality, as though he is looking at problems a new, unclothed by the weight of tradition. And yet, according to Matthew 23:3 he says, "You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say" although "do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they preach." Jesus is no slave to tradition and departs from it frequently, but perhaps the secret is that, brought up within a tradition, he can yet stand apart from it and judge it.
To hold a balance between wooden acceptance of tradition and brash rejection of the inherited riches of the past has been one of the problems of the Church down the ages. Already in the New Testament the Pastoral Epistles represent Paul, now aged and lacking in elasticity, as sheltering somewhat fearfully behind "the deposit of faith." And yet it is her stance within a tradition enriched by the guidance of the Holy Spirit through a diversity of circumstances and personalities down the centuries that has given the Church her stability.
In recent years, especially since the Second Vatican Council, there has been an increasing awareness in the Church of the need to return to our sources. This involves both an appreciation and a criticism of tradition. No less than the Pharisees the Church has always to guard against the danger of becoming set in a particular solution to a problem which was fitting on a certain occasion or in certain circumstances which no longer obtain, and now positively obscures God's purpose. The easiest way is often merely to repeat what was done before without realising its growing inappropriateness. On the other hand the wisdom of previous ages can often be like a flash of light, if not for the actual solution, at least for the method of arriving at a solution or a decision. In matters of doctrine, from which practice and practices must spring, it is a characteristically Catholic richness that we can and must always ask how a particular doctrine was understood in a previous age, when we are seeking to translate it into he thought-forms of the modern world. The Vatican Council (in the Decree on Revelation) has likened the tradition to a continuous conversation: we can fully understand the last exchanges in a conversation Only if we know the starting-point and have followed the course of the conversation. There may, of course, be false departures in a discussion which turn out to be dead ends, but it is the ability to listen to the conversation which gives the believer an insight into the inherited wisdom of the Church.
Some years ago I was travelling on a plane from Paris to Dublin. I was seated beside an eighty-year-old man, who was none other than Sean MacBride, winner of both the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes. While we were talking, we were approached by a Pakistani girl in her late teens or early twenties. She was crying and seemed desperately in need of help. French immigration officials had put heron the plane to Dublin from where she had been expelled some hours earlier by Irish Immigration who judged her papers inadequate. Now she was returning to Dublin to face the same ordeal once more. Bureaucracy had turned her into a human yo-yo. MacBride gently questioned her, eliciting all he needed to know and assured her that he would accompany her to the immigration department. He asked me to come along as well. We were shown into a small waiting-room where we were left unattended for at least an hour. Eventually, a young staffer came to inform us that none of the senior people were available and he had no idea when they miht be. He asked us to leave the girl with him promising that her case would be dealt with according to the regulations. MacBride refused, stating that he was now her legal counsel. He was a distinguished international lawyer. The young man left us again, presumably to consult with his unavailable seniors. When he returned his attitude had become noticeably more conciliatory. He promised that overnight hotel accommodation would be provided for the girl while a decision was being reached. But MacBride would not be fobbed off by such assurances. He refused to leave the airport unless the girl was officially released into his custody. After much to-ing and fro-ing his demand was finally conceded. At this stage we had been detained almost three hours. The last I saw of them was a little old man, clutching his duty-free, leaving the airport with a tall sari-clad Pakistani girl whom he was taking to his own home.
James would have relished the incident. "Pure unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this," he declared. "Coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world."
The Jewish religious leaders were totally preoccupied with externals, with law, and with conformity to ritual. Jesus was interested in the human heart, and what was going on there. This brought him into direct conflicts with those leaders, and it was they who eventually killed him.
Some years ago there was a popular children's programme on British radio. The presenter was a folk-hero to the children, and they idolised him. His picture adorned the walls of their bedrooms. And his fan club included nearly every child in the UK. His downfall was dramatic. One Saturday, he finished his programme as usual, sending all his best wishes to all his friends, and looking forward so much to being with them on the following Saturday. The programme finished with the usual musical flourish, and then, oh horror! disaster struck. Believing that all was over, the presenter turned to those around him, and came out with a string of abusive words about all those spoiled brats out there, who really annoyed him so much! What he didn't know was that the microphone was still turned on! He never came on the air again. All his former fans got a glimpse of what he really thought, and they were outraged. When Jesus speaks, he has nothing to hide...
Religion is external, it is about rules and regulations, it is what we do, and it is about control. Religion has always been destructive, because it is more interested in uniformity rather than unity. There is not a conflict in today's world that does not have its origins in religion. We have killed millions in God's name, down through the centuries. The Jewish religious leaders were completely caught up in religion. The Scribes studied the law and taught it, while the full job of the Pharisees was to impose it. Jesus came to change that. He came to bring God's people across a bridge from a love of law to a law of love.
Jesus came to give us his Spirit. Spirituality is internal, it is what God does in us, and it is about surrender. God sees our hearts, he reads our minds, and he knows our thoughts. He is not so much interested in what we do, as in why we do it. "A pure heart create in me, O Lord, and put a strong spirit within me." Behind the masks we wear, and the games we play, Jesus sees the Inner Child who is often afraid, sometimes confused, and frequently lonely. "Let the little children come to me, because the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Unless you become converted, and become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven." He calls that Inner Child within each of us, even if, like the Prodigal Son, we have got our faces covered in pig's food.
Response: There used be an advert for health salts some years ago, which told us that "inner cleanliness comes first." It is important that we try to see things as Jesus sees them, and as he would want us to see them. Jesus sees beneath the rags, the colour of the skin, the leprosy, the deformed body, the vacant stare. When I stand before him I am like an opened-out canvas, opened right out to the edges, with the whole picture exposed to view, the good, the bad, the ugly. When Adam and Eve sinned, they hid. It is important that we don't try to hide from God. "You know me through and through. You knew me before I was formed in my mother's womb. If I went up unto the highest mountain, you are there ..."
The organ God gave me with which to pray is my heart, not my tongue. "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." Over the main altar of the basilica in Assisi are the word "Si cor non orat, in vanum ligua laborat." "If the heart is not praying, the tongue labours in vain." The prophet said that the worship of the people was a farce, because they replace God's commands with their own man-made teachings.
These are strong words, and they can often be applied to religion as seen practised in many places. I can stand before the Lord and be an abomination to him. We need to clean our hearts. Repentance, conversion, whatever you like to call it, is to have our hearts cleansed, and to have our inner being exorcised. That is where the Holy Land is intended to be. That is my Bethlehem, my Calvary, my Upper Room, my Pentecost place. My heart is intended to be a prayer room, not a pity-parlour.
A man died recently and went to heaven. He was happy up there, as he wandered about, exploring the place. One Sunday morning he bumped into Jesus (it could happen up there, just as sure as down here!) Jesus called him over to show him something. He opened a sort of trap door in the floor of heaven, so that the man could look through, and see even as far as the earth below. Eventually, Jesus got to focus his attention on a church, his own local church at home, where there was a full congregation at Mass. The man watched for a while, and then something began to puzzle him. He could see the priest moving his lips, and turning over the pages. He could see the choir holding their hymnals, and the organist thumping the keyboards. But he couldn't hear a sound. It was total silence. Thinking that the amplification system in heaven had broken down, he turned to Jesus for an explanation. Jesus looked at him in surprise. "Didn't anybody ever tell you? We have a rule here that if they don't do those things with their hearts, we don't hear them up here at all!'