Monday, 31 August 2015

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
Way back when the Lord took the Hebrews from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea and promised them a land of their own he warned them that if they turned from him, disobeyed his commands and worshipped false Gods, he would take the land from them. The People were confident in their promises of loyalty and accepted the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as their God.
With unbelievable patience and tenderness the Lord led them along the way. Over and over again the people lost faith and over and over again, in his loving mercy, God forgave them. Finally they entered the Promised Land and from the very outset things started to go wrong. The People fell into the very sins the Lord had warned them about but they would not listen to him. He sent them Judges and Prophets who warned them repeatedly, prophesying awful calamities if the people did not repent and return to the Lord.
Throughout the Old Testament we hear the prophetic voice pursuing the Hebrews as they chased after their idols and deserted the faith of their fathers.
Chapter 34 of Isaiah, the chapter immediately preceding the one we read from just now, paints a horrendous picture of what awaits the treachery and infidelity of the people but before I read a little of this fearful prophecy I ask you to consider the infidelity of the people of God in our own day.
Have we not deserted the Lord? Have we not turned disobedience to our God into an art form? Have we not made our own idols and bowed down to them? Have we not turned the Law of God on its head, calling evil good and good evil? And have we not stood idly by, too preoccupied with our pleasant lifestyles, while all this is taking place?
To the traitorous Hebrews who did what we are doing in our day God said (Isaiah 34:1-3): Come near and listen, all you races, pay attention all you nations, listen, earth and all that you hold, world and all that comes from you. God is angry with all the nations, enraged with all their hordes. He has vowed them into destruction, and marked them down for slaughter. Their dead are thrown into the streets, a stench comes up from their corpses. Of the land God says: ...over it God will stretch the measuring line of chaos and the plumbline of emptiness... .
We must understand that God gave the Hebrews a land of their own precisely so that they might have a place in which to worship him and that if they refused to worship him the land would be taken from them. This, of course, is exactly what happened and it was well and truly foretold from the very beginning.
Let me admit to you that I tremble for Australia. Actually, I tremble for the whole of the Western world. The West has become a violent, blaspheming, fornicating, adulterouspornographic godless society. We prevent human life through contraception and abort tiny humans even those who have grown to full term. We legitimise sodomy and imagine we can redefine the natural law in order to raise homosexual relationships to the level of marriage. And these are only a small number of the abominations the human race throws in the face of God every day.
We have been warned. Read the Scriptures. Study the events at Fatima. Listen to the wise men and women of our day. Humanity is facing catastrophe! Whether it arrives or not is in our hands.
And afterwards? Afterwards, as is always the case, there will come a time of restoration. Then suffering humanity, having tasted in full the fruits of its own apostasy, will once again experience its need for salvation, its need for God. In that moment the words of Isaiah in today’s first reading will be fulfilled (35:3-4): Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees and say to all faint hearts, 'Courage! Do not be afraid. 'Look, your God is coming, vengeance is coming, the retribution of God; he is coming to save you.'
Is there anything we can do or is our ruin inevitable? I can only repeat what the Church repeats: repent, confess, be faithful to the Sunday Eucharist, live a good life, pray, do penance, give alms.
Nothing is inevitable so we must rouse ourselves. The world is in a state of dire emergency; don't let the apparent peacefulness in Australia fool you. If you don’t need to go to confession, if you are already faithful to Sunday Mass, if you are living a good life – then I would propose: SAY THE DAILY ROSARY! And if you are already saying it, say it better!
The Rosary has tremendous power. As one African bishop was told in a vision of Jesus only recently, it could destroy Boko Haram. We all want to hear the words of God’s promise of restoration but we must work at restoration in the only place that we can – in our own lives.
Let the wilderness and the dry-lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy. The glory of Lebanon is bestowed on it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they shall see the glory of Yahweh, the splendour of our God. Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees and say to all faint hearts, 'Courage! Do not be afraid. 'Look, your God is coming, vengeance is coming, the retribution of God; he is coming to save you.'

Monday, 24 August 2015

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Deuteronomy 4:1-2.6-8; James 1:17-18.21-22.27; Mark 7:1-8.14-15.21-23
The Pharisees and the scribes and their followers are well known enemies of Jesus. They are often referred to as ‘the Jews’. When we read in the gospel that they had come from Jerusalem and had gathered round Jesus a warning bell rings. If you like the David Attenborough nature documentaries you will think of the way the lions begin gathering around a herd of water buffalo, or the way the wolves gather round a mother elk and her newborn. Their intention is clear.
And so we are on full alert because we know they are out to trap Jesus and, if possible, have him put away – permanently. They stand among the crowd, watching and waiting for their opportunity.
Then they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands.
They noticed. Of course they noticed. They were experts at noticing. Their whole instinct was to notice even the smallest infractions of their traditions. This gave them an opportunity to correct and to criticise and to humiliate. Above all it gave them a good reason to feel righteous and superior.
The evangelist Mark gives us a few more important details: The Pharisees and the Jews in general follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes.
But these many observances were not the Law of God, they were the laws of men, the traditions of the elders which in their time-consuming complexity could only be fully practiced by those rich enough to have the free time.
And so these professional observers of the short-comings of others noticed that the disciples did not wash their hands before eating and found it a sufficiently important infraction of the tradition to question the Master about it: Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?
Now permit me to change tack for a moment because I wish to explore a question which has been surfacing with some regularity over the last several years. Why do some people accept the words of Jesus and why do others reject him? What is it that determines the response they give to him? How did the Pharisees actually come to think they way they do? And why do other people think like them? Let’s look at the very first time the gospel was preached to the people after Pentecost. It seems to me that this moment can serve as a paradigm for the process by which all people come to believe.
Peter and the apostles stand before the crowd and Peter calls them to attention: Men of Judaea, and all you who live in Jerusalem, make no mistake about this, but listen carefully to what I say. Surely this is the essential first step – to listen carefully – which presupposes a clear exposition of the gospel.
Peter goes on (Acts 2): Men of Israel, listen to what I am going to say: Jesus the Nazarene was a man commended to you by God by the miracles and portents and signs that God worked through him when he was among you, as you all know. This man, who was put into your power by the deliberate intention and foreknowledge of God, you took and had crucified by men outside the Law. You killed him, but God raised him to life, freeing him from the pangs of Hades ... .
There is no moment in life more significant than the moment when the gospel knocks at the door of a person’s heart. Very often this moment will determine the course of the rest of that person’s life. Will the word be welcomed or rejected?
One would think that Peter might have tried to make the initial message a little more attractive than the accusation: You killed him; but strangely, inexplicably about 3,000 people opened that door and: were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the apostles, 'What must we do, brothers? With uncompromising directness Peter answered: You must repent, every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So now we can clearly see the steps to faith – listen carefully to the gospel, let it convict you of your sin, experience sorrow, repent and be baptised.
It is no accident that the Pharisees were so fixated on the sins of others – and it is no accident that they thought of themselves as the ‘righteous ones’. For one reason or another they had not been able to open the door to the gospel when it knocked.
Of course the gospel never ceases to knock at our door. Perhaps in the years ahead there might be a graced moment of acceptance, but if there is not, there will be a greater and greater drifting away from the truth until a person is truly cut off and drifts from one silliness to the next. We have all seen where this silliness will lead when people can bring themselves to believe a child can justly be aborted in the womb, or two men or two women can be married, or that they can desert Christ in his Church because of the sins of others.
Our empty churches are only by-products of our  empty confessionals. Undoubtedly, the great crisis of our times is the denial of personal sin. Why was it that the prostitute Mary Magdalen was so open to Christ when he came? It was because she truly knew her sin and her need for forgiveness. It all starts with this. Unless we acknowledge our sin we cannot feel sorrow, and unless we feel sorrow we cannot repent, and unless we repent we cannot receive the Holy Spirit.

Monday, 17 August 2015

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Joshua 24:1-2.15-18; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69
Then Joshua said to all the people, ‘If you will not serve the Lord, choose today whom you wish to serve.’
Last week Jesus finished unwrapping the gift he was offering the world in the synagogue of Capernaum. It left his listeners stunned, distressed, outraged. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life.
If I had been Jesus, excuse me for this silly hypothesis, I would have unveiled this mystery a few moments before the Last Supper. It would then have made much more sense and would have spared the apostles the misery of seeing their Master humiliated by the desertion of so many followers.
So I would have begun, ‘Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life’, and then very quickly I would have taken the bread and said, 'This is my body which will be given for you.’ And then with the wine: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you.’
See how smoothly the transition could have been accomplished? A tiny moment of puzzlement, a little reflection, and then the ‘aha!’ moment. ‘Oh, I see what he means. Whew! He had me worried for a moment.’
But the inscrutable wisdom of the Master cannot be questioned. It was apparently some months before the apostles could put Jesus’ words at Capernaum together with his words at the Last Supper, the first Mass. For them it must have been a happy moment. They had believed without seeing and their faith in the Lord was not disappointed. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe (Jn 20:29).
Sadly, many of his followers could not believe and they left him, saying: This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it? And, of course, according to human logic they were right, as are many Christians today who simply cannot believe this doctrine. Jesus did not call them back. He did not say he was only speaking in metaphors. He did not say all would be made clear at the first Eucharist. As I have discovered, to reason with someone who has lost his faith in Jesus’ words is impossible because the heart of our faith is our belief that what Jesus says is true, always and everywhere, for all time, whether we understand them or not. Our faith is in the man, the person of Jesus.
I recall a longish conversation I had with a colleague at one of the schools I was teaching in. We read through John 6 together and I explained, as best I could that Jesus’ teaching was literally true, that he was teaching us that he was going to give us his body to eat and his blood to drink, and this promise was to be fulfilled in the Eucharist. At the end of our discussion he said he could not believe Jesus was speaking literally and insisted he was speaking metaphorically the same way as he was when he called himself a vine or a gate to the sheepfold. He argued that Jesus himself indicated this when he said: It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit... .
Well, no one walked away when Jesus described himself as vine, or when he told them he was the gate to the sheepfold, or that he was the way, the truth and the life. There is one thing at least that we do know. Those who walked away were taking him quite literally, and if that were the case, surely Jesus would have called them back and explained his metaphor to them. But he didn’t because he wasn’t.
Jesus meant every word he said and he meant them literally.
Moreover, the spirit/flesh dichotomy is well known in the scriptures. It refers most commonly to the opposition between the human and the divine as, for example, Galatians 6:8 from the King James 2000 translation: For he that sows to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that sows to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
Jesus did not explain the doctrine he taught because there was nothing to explain; there was only something to believe.
‘But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the outset those who did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.
This is the first mention of Judas Iscariot and, interestingly, it has to do once again with faith in the trustworthiness of the words of Jesus. Judas did not believe and perhaps we might imagine that in his heart he ‘left him, and stopped going with him’ at that moment.
We must finish with Simon Peter’s affirmation of faith in Jesus. Like all those present he too did not understand what Jesus was saying, but he believed in the person of Jesus. Listen carefully to his words as, in so many words, he says, ‘Jesus, we trust you.’
Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.’
Or to put it in the words of Joshua: As for me and my House, we will serve the Lord.’

Monday, 10 August 2015

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
The sheep have been gathered by the shepherd. He has led them into the sheepfold of his wonderful teaching and his astonishing miracles. He has led them through the gate which always stands open behind them. This is not a shepherd who traps his sheep; they are always free to leave him. Only those who know the shepherd and listen to his voice will remain.
But they grow more and more tense, more and more puzzled, more and more uncomfortable. What is he saying? Am I hearing correctly? Can he mean what I think he means? Is there something I’m missing?
Jesus had miraculously fed them the day before. If the wine from the water of Cana was ‘the best wine’, what would the meal of the loaves and fishes have tasted like? Now he was offering them bread from heaven, living bread, and telling them that anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.
Of course they are interested, keenly interested. Wouldn’t you be? When Jesus offered the Samaritan woman ‘living water’ she had eagerly responded (John 4:15): 'Sir,' said the woman 'give me some of that water, so that I may never get thirsty and never have to come here again to draw water.'
It would not have been fair to say that the woman had ‘misunderstood’. This was not about ‘understanding’. No more than the people listening to Jesus in the Synagogue at Capernaum could be accused of misunderstanding. Jesus’ logic was not that of earth but of heaven – the logic not of the flesh but of the spirit.
The movement is clear enough: bread for the stomach – bread from heaven – living bread – I am the living bread which has come down from heaven – eat this bread – this bread is my flesh – eat my flesh and drink my blood – and back to the beginning: you will live for ever.
I have spoken at other times of suicide bombers who stand among the people and cause horrendous destruction. The explosion Jesus detonates causes immense ‘construction’. Instead of bringing death to those who stand around him he brings life.
Of course the people are in no way ready for what Jesus is telling them. They are caught between their desire for the promise of eternal life and the bewildering proposal that they must eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus in order to achieve it.
Let us not forget, though I imagine you are in no danger of doing so, that Jews were strictly forbidden to consume blood, or even flesh with blood in it. To eat human flesh and blood was even more out of the question.
Then the Jews started arguing with one another: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ they said. I am totally sympathetic to the confusion and frustration of these Jews. Perhaps the modern youth would say, ‘I feel you, brothers.’ But then, on reflection, our faith is littered with such questions?
How can God become a baby? How can a woman give birth and remain a virgin? How water turn into wine? How can the bread and wine become the Body and Blood? How can a man rise from the dead? How can a priest forgive sin? How can the pope say he is infallible?
Jesus answers such questions with a question of his own (John 9:35): Do you believe in the Son of Man? This is the pivotal question, the one which puts all other questions into perspective. The answer to this question will determine our response to all the others.
Some want a God without mysteries and miracles and incomprehensible truths because, deep down, they live in the lie that God must explain himself to their intellect or suffer rejection. They have made of their minds a kind of judgment seat before which God must kneel in order to prove himself.
But Jesus is not judged by what he puts before us; we are. We are in the dock, not the Master. The words of Jesus are certainly moments in which God is revealed to us but also moments in which we are revealed to God, and to ourselves.
And what is it that is revealed? To put it as simply as possible it is whether we believe, or not; whether we are sheep of his flock, or not. As Jesus said to those who opposed him (John 10:26): you do not believe, because you are no sheep of mine.
Next week, as those wayward sheep wander away shaking their heads at Jesus we hear Peter exclaim (John 6:69): Lord, ... we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.'
Let me conclude by reiterating the basic opposition which becomes apparent in this chapter of the gospel of John, the opposition between the status we give Jesus in our lives (Is he the Christ of God?) and the status we ascribe to our own judgment (Is it only true if I can understand it?). Those who trust the Lord will stay with him; those who rely solely on their understanding will eventually walk away.

Monday, 3 August 2015

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30-5.2; John 6:41-51
The crowds had been following Jesus everywhere he went; one could almost say they had been pursuing him. He escaped them three times by boat; but somehow they had been able to guess where he was heading and each time had managed to catch up with him. They were impressed by the signs he worked, by his teaching and miracles, and wanted more and more to be with him.
Jesus did not disappoint them. He had taught them at length (16th Sunday) and miraculously fed them by the multiplication of loaves and fishes (17th Sunday). Then he had begun teaching them in the synagogue in Capernaum (18th Sunday) and today (19th Sunday) he continues that teaching.
But things were now strangely different. The people were puzzled, restless, uncertain. They were complaining to each other about Jesus, because he had said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ ‘Surely this is Jesus son of Joseph’ they said. ‘We know his father and mother. How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’
It strikes me as curious that it was his claim to have come down from heaven that unsettled them. Why did they not say ‘We know his father and mother. How can he now say, “I am bread”?’
The mood, I imagine, was probably like that of the Hebrews who travelled with Moses through the desert. They, too, complained against him. ‘We have no water, we have no bread, we have no meat.’
In any event, they were complaining about Jesus to one another because now his teaching no longer ‘added up’; it no longer squared with their human way of thinking, the thinking of the flesh.
They hadn’t noticed that actually he was no longer just teaching them, at least not in the sense of taking them from the known to the unknown, no, Jesus was not explaining a teaching, he was illuminating a mystery. And as we have already discovered, he was not asking them to understand his words but to believe them. And isn’t this our challenge too, as Catholic Christians?
It’s a sad spectacle when a Christian tries to reconcile Jesus’ words and deeds with human thinking. The miracles are ‘clarified’ with far-fetched and unlikely explanations that eventually the miracle seems more plausible than the ‘clarifications’. Sooner or later we all have to stand before the gospel of Jesus and give an honest answer to the question ‘Do I believe or do I not believe the words of the Master?’
Noticing their dissatisfaction Jesus replies, ‘Stop complaining to each other’ and sets aside the doubts created by their human logic by spelling out for them that the path to the life he offers is ultimately walked only by those who open their hearts to God.
No one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me, and I will raise him up at the last day. In other words, to come to Jesus is to be drawn by the Father – and to be drawn by the Father is always to come to Jesus.
To hear the teaching of the Father, and learn from it, is to come to me.
Jesus thus claims divine credentials for his words and puts the challenge as simply as he can; the divine life he offers is accessed only through faith: I tell you most solemnly, everybody who believes has eternal life.
And so let us open the door of our heart wide, let us allow the Father to draw us, let us set aside our fleshly way of thinking and receive the Lord’s words with faith:
I am the living bread which has come down from heaven.
Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever;
and the bread that I shall give is my flesh,
for the life of the world.
And so we join the dots: bread for the stomach; earthly bread ... bread for the soul; bread from heaven  ... Jesus is the living bread; he has come down from heaven ... the bread he gives is his flesh; for the life of the world.
Do you believe that?

Monday, 27 July 2015

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Exodus 16:2-4. 12-15; Ephesians 4:17. 20-24; John 6:24-35

Revelation is that part of God’s teaching which cannot be changed because it comes from above, from God himself. We humans can arrive at a certain degree of knowledge of God by thoughtfully reflecting on the truth, the goodness and the beauty we see in creation but this knowledge is limited; we eventually reach a line we cannot cross.
God comes to meet us at that line – and to take us beyond it. What we learn we could never come to know of ourselves; that is why we call it revelation. It is a great gift from God in which he, so to speak, uncovers himself to us, pulls back the veil, and leads us into the deep mysteries of his own being. And, of course, learning about God is always learning about ourselves.
The Scriptures are the history of God’s revelation of himself in the human experience of his chosen people.
The first thing we notice when we begin to read scripture is the clarity, purposefulness, and consistency of God’s revelation. God knows what he is about and what he wants to tell us. This truth is nowhere more comprehensively expressed than in the words of last week’s gospel: he himself knew exactly what he was going to do. God’s revelation unfolds before us, page after page, century after century, as he waits for his people to finally understand, to grasp with heart and mind the riches he offers.
The second thing we notice is that most people, when confronted with the revealed truths of God, manifest a kind of fumbling incapacity which misunderstands, doubts, contradicts, and even rejects. Faced with this historical obtuseness of his people God might well have spoken the exasperated words of Jesus to his disciples (Mtt 17:17): How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?
Yes, indeed, we are very slow to understand, a slowness defeated only by the patient compassion of our God. We truly are the sheep of the shepherd; the helpless children of the loving Father. No wonder Jesus said: Make the people sit down; and then gave out the loaves: to all who were sitting ready. What a beautiful and telling image of our proper relationship to the Lord!
 And so the Lord wants to lead us today further into the truth. With the benefit of hindsight we already know what that truth is even though it will only be fully stated in three weeks time. But let’s not anticipate.
Having given the people bread to eat, bread which filled their stomachs, he now prepares them for the next stage in his teaching but note that Jesus calls not so much for understanding as for belief. This demand, repeated throughout the teaching, is foundational to grasping that it is mystery at stake, not understanding. They actually ask Jesus what God requires of them and he answers: you must believe in the one he has sent.
And so Jesus continues: Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you. Jesus, who has given them bread for the life of their bodies, is now suggesting there is a food for eternal life and that he, the Son of Man, is offering it to them.
They challenge him for a sign to show they should believe and then, recalling how Moses gave their ancestors ‘bread from heaven’ (the manna), they quote the scriptures to him: as scripture says: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.
Jesus first corrects them. It was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven but my Father who – and instead of the expected words who gave you bread from heaven – Jesus says: who gives you the bread from heaven. In other words, it is the Father who gave the Hebrews bread from heaven then, and it is the Father who is giving you the bread from heaven now.
This bread is the true bread. Why? Because the first gave life only to the Hebrews while this bread ‘gives life to the world’.
The response of the people is not unexpected. Who among us would not answer with them: Sir, give us that bread always.
But immediately is felt the small tremor preceding the major earthquake. First a strange silence, then a questioning puzzlement, then a ‘What did he say? Did he say that he is the bread of life?’ Yes, that’s what he said.
Jesus answered:
I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me will never be hungry;
he who believes in me will never thirst.
A moment later the tremor passes. ‘Well, remember, he did once say he was the vine, and he did say he was the good shepherd, and he did say he was the gate of the sheepfold so I guess he is just using colourful language again – a metaphor.’There will be more disquieting tremors next week as Jesus deepens his teaching. For the moment, we who already believe, we who have already experienced the earthquake yet to come can relish the simple, intoxicating beauty of the phrase ‘I am the bread of life’.

Monday, 20 July 2015

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

For the next five weeks we will be on a journey through a single chapter of St John’s Gospel – Chapter Six, divided into five parts – and the destination of our journey will be a deeper faith in the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion.
Chapter Six is commonly called the Bread of Life Discourse because it is all about bread – bread for the body and bread for the soul. The chapter begins with a great miracle of multiplied bread so that as many as five thousand men are able to make a meal from five loaves and two fish. When they were done they collected twelve baskets of scraps.
Later on in the evening the apostles are terrified as they see Jesus coming towards them, walking on the water of the lake. This episode is not included in the readings because, I imagine, it is not directly relevant to the subject of bread. There is, however, one point I would like to make about it. Every time I read that Jesus crosses the lake and is then followed by a crowd of people I automatically think of Moses who crossed the Red Sea with the Hebrews. Moses had parted the waters but Jesus, greater even than Moses, walks on the water.
The following day in the synagogue of Capernaum comes the momentous teaching of Jesus to the same people who had eaten the bread. They had followed him to Capernaum and found him in the synagogue. They had filled their stomachs and wanted more and, as we shall see during the next four Sundays, they got much more than they could handle.
The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is well known. Jesus had crossed the lake followed by a crowd who had been impressed by his miracles of curing the sick. Probably joined by many of the locals they eventually formed a huge crowd of at least five thousand.
John describes what happened but we need to read carefully or we might miss the special words and phrases and allusions he inserts into the narrative which operate like little ‘portals’ into the past and the future and thereby greatly enrich the significance of the present events.
For example, when John says that Jesus ‘climbed the hillside’, a ‘portal’ opens on to Moses who climbed Mt Sinai and brought the Law, the word of God, to the people. As Jesus climbs the hillside John wants us to turn our minds to Moses because he intends to show us that Jesus is the fulfilment of all that Moses did for the people.
It was shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover. Now why would John take the trouble to mention that the miracle of the loaves and fishes took place around Passover time? It is because he wants us to understand that what Jesus is about to do is an authentic development of what began with Moses and the people at the first Passover: the saving acts by which God set his people free from slavery in Egypt and brought them into a land of their own with a Law of their own. On their journey he fed them with manna (bread from heaven) and gave them water to drink from the rock, and flocks of quails to eat.
John wants us to understand that what Jesus is about to do has its roots in the Passover but has a fulfilment which is yet to come.
Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching ... . What was he to do? There were only five barley loaves and two fish. He told his apostles: Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass there, and as many as five thousand men sat down. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all who were sitting ready...
If I may continue with my somewhat banal image of the portal or the ‘wormhole’ we can identify a few more in what John has just said, only this time they look into the future rather than the past.
Firstly Jesus requires the people to ‘sit down’ – as is commonly done for a meal. It seems he intends to feed them. But more than this. When Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all, we find ourselves suddenly transported into the future where Jesus is at table with his disciples at the Last Supper, and even more than this, where we find ourselves sitting at this Mass two thousand years later, waiting to be fed.
The inspired text of John’s gospel shines both the spotlight of the Passover and the spotlight of the Eucharist on the present miracle of Jesus. It illuminates its place in the saving acts of Jesus and prepares us for the teaching which is to follow. It is a mighty teaching, a sublime teaching, a hard teaching but a wondrous teaching. It comes to us directly from God.
Indeed, as the verse before the gospel proclaims:
A great prophet has appeared among us;
God has visited his people. Alleluia!

Monday, 13 July 2015

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34
The Twelve rejoin Jesus but now, for the first time, Mark calls them apostles. They had been with Jesus as his specially chosen Twelve but they return from the mission he gave them as his Twelve Apostles. Not only had they made a difference in the lives of those to whom they were sent but they, too, were now different.
When Jesus had begun sending them out it was with the unspoken agreement they would return to him. The Twelve knew that the mission they were setting out on was his mission and not theirs. They had been sent out on his mission in his name with his authority.
This is an immensely important understanding of the ministry, especially for bishops and priests, and even for lay people engaged in the apostolate. We come to Jesus who teaches us, empowers us, authorises us and who then sends us out. There is no mission without the Master.
Furthermore, we might be tempted to think that it is the mission which is of paramount importance but that is not so. It is Jesus, the Lord of the mission, who is of prime importance and it is for this reason that those sent to do his work must continually return to him. The mission is merely a part of our relationship with Jesus and never the other way round.
It can happen, as I have mentioned at another time, that priests, bishops, nuns & brothers, not to mention laypeople, come to forget this important relationship between the Lord and the mission they are engaged in. Very soon the mission degenerates into mere social work while those who forget Jesus become do-gooders. Predictably these unfortunates will seek compensations for their labour other than the joy of rejoining the Lord.
Not so the apostles who rejoined Jesus and told him all they had done and taught. Today we call this process ‘debriefing’ though the word does not capture the richness and the depth of wonder and thankful praise of the apostles. They had seen miracles and marvels of God’s power – demons cast out and sicknesses cured – and they would have laid their gratitude at the feet of Jesus.
How important this is for all who imagine they are living the Christian life and labouring in the Lord’s vineyard. How essential to give him all the glory! It is only by doing this that grace is given, strength is renewed, and true humility is learned. Failure to rejoin the Lord every day in prayer is tantamount to being gradually cut off from the vine. Then we can do nothing.
Jesus also invites his excited but weary apostles to come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while. Had they remained among the crowd with so many coming and going that they had no time even to eat they would have lacked the space and time in which to consolidate their many experiences into an integrated and harmonious understanding. This is the reason priests and religious are obliged to do regular retreats; why seminarians have long holidays; why all Christians must put in place for themselves a daily prayer life. This is our way of rejoining the Lord and making sure that our lives and our work continue to be centred on him.
So far we have spoken of the Lord, the apostle and the mission. We must not, however, forget the people to whom the mission is directed.
When Jesus and the apostles went off in a boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves ... the people saw them going, and many could guess where; and from every town they all hurried to the place on foot and reached it before them.
What drove the people to seek out Jesus can be very simply stated: they needed salvation. And because they needed salvation they needed a saviour; one who could rescue them from all that makes human life unable to attain what each human being longs for: wholeness, completion, fullness of life.
So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.
The apostles missed out on their solitude and rest, instead they were given front row seats at what must have been a most astonishingly wonderful scene: the shepherd feeding his flock. We can only imagine how quickly the crowds settled as Jesus found a place from which to address them.
They were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.
Jesus fed his children on the rich banquet of his words. He nourished them, gave them meaning, gave them hope and, above all, gave them life. The beauty of the moment can be captured a little in the alleluia verse: My sheep listen to my voice, says the Lord; I know them, and they follow me. Alleluia!

Monday, 6 July 2015

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Amos 7:12-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13

The gospel is always simple and straightforward until you start thinking about it. The more you meditate on it the more interesting it becomes. So let's just meditate on the first sentence.

Jesus summoned the Twelve... .

Jesus stands conveniently at the head of this sentence as subject, which is precisely how he should stand in our lives. As a priest I often say to myself, and occasionally to others, 'How I wish more people would make more room in their lives for God and the things of God.' So many of us just seem to 'fit him in' somewhere convenient, so that he doesn't take up too much of the time we like to devote to our favourite preoccupations.

We note that Jesus summoned the Twelve. There is more than a hint of kingly authority in this word summoned. It basically means he brought them into his presence, he made them stand before him. Jesus summons us, too, in many ways. Most simply put he calls us to listen to, to believe, and then to live his word. If we do this we will find ourselves not only with him but in him (cf. Jn 14:17).

Jesus summoned the Twelve. These are the men he chose to draw close to him and become his special collaborators. They are not yet apostles. This will happen to them in the next few words when he begins to send them out. The word apostle, in fact, means those who are sent forth. But for now they are merely the Twelve and we do well to remember that because Jesus generally operates in exactly the same way in our lives. He summons us so that he might make us apostles.

... and began to send them out in pairs...

The word began gives us the sense of the ongoing work of Jesus and of the training of his Twelve. He began to send them out. As far as his own ministry on earth was concerned Jesus had now reached that moment when he was able to involve others in his saving work. He was making progress. As for the Twelve, they had now reached the point where Jesus could begin to send them out because they were making progress.

I like to picture, granted a little piously, the Lord standing with the Twelve kneeling before him. The subject standing before the object. And he might say to them: I ... send ... you.

It is very easy to overlook the significance of this simple transaction. I recall the priest who disobeyed the instructions of the Church in various liturgical matters 'out of loyalty to my people,' as he put it. This priest, and there are many like him, had simply forgotten who it was who sent him, who it was to whom he owed his loyalty. He had not been sent by the people. It was to Christ in the Church to whom he owed his loyalty and his obedience.

And this reflects on every member of the Church involved in the Apostolate. We serve in the name of the Church and not in the name of the people we serve. Any disobedience to the Church can never be justified out of 'loyalty' to the people.

Jesus sent them out in pairs... . The wisdom of this practice has been proven over the centuries. It gives courage to the apostles and in all sorts of ways tends to short circuit ministerial problems as well as promote ministerial growth.

As he sends them Jesus gives them a special gift which will ensure success in the mission. He gives them: authority over the unclean spirits.

One of the things I felt strongly inadequate about in the seminary, after having been for many years a school teacher with rather serious responsibilities, was that suddenly I had no clearly defined identity. I missed the identity which being a member of staff had given me and found myself suddenly 'de-authorised'. Upon ordination to priesthood, which included 'being sent', I regained, but in a new way, that sense of direction and authority. If anyone were to ask I could now say: Jesus sent me.

And finally, it was over the unclean spirits that Jesus gave the Twelve his own authority. What a world of horrible meaning are contained in these two words. Every conceivable evil, every human weakness and failure, and crime - all woundedness and sin - and the spirits who foment it.

Many times over the last three decades have I experienced this authority. It always leaves me a little speechless and greatly humbled. And you, too, every adult Catholic Christian is authorised to confront evil and to set people free.

If I had another ten minutes I would jump into a reflection on the Christian family which is the primary place for parents to exercise of this God-given authority. But I haven't, so I will conclude with the words of a hymn:

Go now you are sent forth,
To live what you proclaim;
To show the world you follow Christ 
In fact, not just in name.

Go now, you are sent forth
To walk the troubled earth.
To share your faith with all you meet
And prove your real worth.

Go now, you are sent forth
As God's ambassador;
By serving Christ in those we meet
We love him more and more.

Go now, you are sent forth
And Christ goes with you, too.
Today you help his kingdom come
In everything you do.

Monday, 29 June 2015

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

Ezekiel 2:5: Whether they listen or not, this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them.

Mark 6:4: A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house.

Today I'd like to reflect a little on the role of the prophet who, arguably, has the most difficult of all vocations. There are two kinds of prophets; false prophets and true prophets.

False prophets support and sustain people in their illusions about life and about themselves; they encourage self-deception. True prophets always attack self-deception and try to lead people, individuals and communities, into the way God sees things.

Every true prophet is a victim, a victim of the word of God which God has placed in his heart and which he is compelled to proclaim. A prophet is a man trapped. If he does not speak the word which turns us against him, the word itself will turn on him.

A prophet must sacrifice everything to the word and, as Jeremiah (20:9) shows us, it is futile to resist: I used to say, 'I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name any more. Then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not bear it.

Nor can a prophet be misled or disturbed or awed by loud voices or appearances because he has the gift which allows him to identify and keep his eyes on the truth of every matter. He is one who can see in the dark - whose eyes pierce the obscurity created by confusing facts and public opinion.

They said, ‘Where did the man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him, and these miracles that are worked through him? This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too, are they not here with us?’

Undoubtedly these were the facts. The people knew them all and listed them carefully and confidently and the end result of their knowing the facts was that: they would not accept him. But prophets don't deal in facts, they deal in truth. They are trapped by truth as we are ensnared by facts. Here are some more facts:
  • Martha said to him, Lord, by now he will smell; this is the fourth day (Jn 11:39).
  • Your daughter has died. Do not trouble the Master any further (Lk 8:49).
  • There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many (Jn 6:9)?
God’s prophet can see past the facts to the truth. He is that rare man who can say of himself: I am not confused. Beyond all human certainty he sees as God sees - from within, from above - clearly.

Because he speaks the truth and because we are steeped in lies, a prophet is always confronting. He speaks truths that are hidden from us and from which we hide. He takes us by surprise, catches us off guard. His words are confronting because they are always about the God we forget, or about ourselves, whom we think we know.

We live sometimes so deeply embedded in untruths or half-truths that to hear the words of a prophet is to feel assaulted, insulted, humiliated. In his words we see a thief who is trying to steal from us our carefully crafted illusions and though his words may be whispered, the whisper of truth, we hear them as the shout of a bully.

Each age seeks its own ways to dismiss the prophet. He is never welcome; he must be eliminated from the scene. A prophet says precisely what we do not wish to hear. He spoils our fun. He warns us of consequences we deny. He tells us we are wrong.

A prophet is the arch-enemy of the liar, even should the liar be an entire nation, a whole planet. He still overturns us because he cares for us and about us. He loves us.

He has responsibility for us because he is one of us. His life is bound to ours. He takes us more seriously than we take ourselves. He is our shepherd - the shepherd of God's flock. The prophet is a sentry who never sleeps. He warns us about the enemy who approaches from afar and the one who emerges from within - fuelled by the power of our disordered hearts and our evil actions.

The prophet is therefore always warning us about ourselves who are so ready to displease God - to find our own way. He is close to God and calls us to be close to God - to listen and obey. A prophet calls us to be reconciled to God - and to one another.

Monday, 22 June 2015

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-242 Corinthians 8:7.9.13-15; Mark 5:21-43
The First Reading tells us: Death was not God's doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living ... it was the devil's envy that brought death into the world ...
We need constantly to remind ourselves of this. Death was not God's doing ... it was the devil's envy that brought death into the world...
As a hospital chaplain, almost every day I saw people struggling to come to terms with the suffering and death of a loved one, or with their own impending death. A common question, almost an accusation, at such times is 'Why is God doing this?'
My simple response was always 'God is not doing this' and I left it up to the grieving person to pursue the issue or not. Mostly they didn't but sometimes, hours or days later, some would ask 'What did you mean, Father, when you said "God did not do this?"'
Our Catholic faith presents us with a very clear picture of God's loving creation and his concern for us all. At the very beginning it is clear he made us to be imperishable, as the Book of Wisdom affirmed just now. Death was never God's plan for us, and neither was its partner, suffering. Both suffering and death entered the world because mankind, through the temptation of the devil, turned away from God. This turning away had dire consequences.
To understand this we need to remember that when we turned away from God we turned away from everything good – love, wholeness, innocence, light, life - and we found instead: fear, brokenness, guilt, darkness, suffering and death.
Satan tempted us and we fell for his lie and one of the worst consequences of this falling is that from that moment on we found it difficult to take responsibility for sin. So we blame everyone except ourselves - the woman made me do it - the serpent made me do it.
Even today we hide from the truth about suffering and death and blame God for it all. At the least we accuse him of failing us because he doesn't just simply take it all away, make it all better, fix it! which, of course, is precisely what he has done, and in a way which wonderfully satisfies both mercy and justice.
What God did was to send his own Son, Jesus, to take upon himself the very scourge we brought into the world through our sin. He took upon himself suffering and death and made them a path to eternal life for those who follow his steps. In other words, the very suffering and death which led to our ultimate destruction now leads to eternal life - but we have to believe!
Suffering and death still come to us in this life but now, hand in hand with Jesus, they lead us to the resurrection and heavenly light. The Scriptures and the saints teach us this lesson over and over again, telling us to walk the painful journey of life in the footsteps of our loving Master, carrying the cross of our sufferings in faith, and we will find ourselves sanctified and blessed, already here on this earth, and in the world to come.
That's why people flocked to Jesus. Their deafness and paralysis and demon possession and illness were the sufferings which caused them to come to the one who alone could give health and life. As he took these away he taught them there was a disease greater than those of the body, and a health and a life greater than the one they were seeking.
This is what makes sense of that mysterious question of Jesus to the disciples in the sinking boat last week - 'Why are you so frightened?'
We can imagine the disciples responding 'Why are we so frightened? What do you mean? The boat was filling up with water, it was going down, we were going to die! WE WERE GOING TO DIE!' And then Jesus mysteriously, challengingly, 'So, why are you so frightened?'
In our own lives the question repeats itself over and over. But, Lord, I have cancer! So, why are you so frightened? But, Lord, I have heart disease! So, why are you so frightened? Lord, we are out of money, my husband lost his job, my wife had an accident, I am pregnant again .... THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO BE DESTROYED! So, why are you so frightened?
This is the question which brings us to the outer limits of our faith in God. In the face of the problems and uncertainties of my life, in the face of the problems and uncertainties confronting the world - why am I so frightened? Do I believe or not?
Jesus invites us to a faith which transcends present suffering and future death. He invites us to the peace and joy of total faith in a future which is in his loving hands. No matter what we may suffer, even death, he invites us, not to fear, but to rejoice because our names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20).

Monday, 15 June 2015

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Job 38:1,8-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17; Mark 4:35-41

The gospels show Jesus in all sorts of situations as he travels the dusty roads of Palestine preaching the Kingdom of his Father. We, too, walk with him, we listen to what he says, we see how he acts, we observe how the Apostles respond – and we learn who he is.

So today, for no apparent reason, he says to them (and to us): Let’s cross over to the other side.

The other side for the apostles was the other side of the lake, a potentially dangerous journey across unpredictable waters. To make it worse he decided to make the crossing at night!

We all have ‘another side of the lake'; a part of our lives which we need to attend to and visit with Jesus. What’s yours? A gambling problem? Drink, drugs, lack of prayer, selfishness, temper?

So he says to us ‘Come on, let’s go. Get into the boat! I’ll be with you.’

The Apostles were probably rather glad to be doing something they understood, something they had been doing all their lives. They would have been confident of their skills and of their understanding of the dangers. They would not have been thinking of Jesus as he took his seat out of their way, put his head on the pillow and fell asleep. Were they perhaps thinking ‘This, at last, is something we can do. We are the experts and we don’t need Jesus.’

This, really, is the great temptation – to think we can go where we want, achieve what we want, find the happiness we want – without Jesus. Have you ever given in to this temptation? I think the whole of the Western world is struggling with this temptation right now. ‘Do we need Jesus? Is Jesus still necessary?’

And quite unbelievably, there are some religious denominations, saying the same thing. And if they are not saying it they are certainly practising it. How many funerals have I attended where it seemed they were, de facto, worshipping the deceased and Jesus had to find himself a place on the sidelines with barely a mention? No wonder that in our time he seems to have fallen asleep.

Some commentators will say that Jesus was not really asleep but I disagree. Mark is careful to insist that he was asleep, that they woke him, and that he woke up. But perhaps we can compromise with the beautiful verse from the Song of Songs (5:2): I sleep, but my heart is awake.

And why did Jesus allow himself to fall asleep, especially on such a dangerous voyage? The answer is very simple – he trusted his Father. What a lesson for us! We, poor humans that we are, we need to sleep. It is God who never sleeps. As God, Jesus never sleeps, as the hymn for evening prayer declares so beautifully:
Jesu, Good Shepherd, thou who never sleepest,
But o’er thy sheepfold watch and ward who keepest;

but as a man like us he needs everything we do and that includes rest.

Suddenly it begins to blow a gale and the waves break into the boat, threatening to swamp it.
  • I must have a drink. I need it. I can’t do without a drink for another minute.
  • It happened again, I lost my temper. I can’t do this. I can never win this battle.
  • It feels so pointless when I pray. Nothing happens, no one is there. Jesus is asleep.
St Therese of Lisieux used to say when everything went wrong, when she was cold and sick and suffering, that Jesus was asleep. I suppose in this respect she was much like you and me. In time of calamity and distress we say Jesus is absent, or asleep. But Therese also used to say at such times that we shouldn’t complain, or Jesus might wake up! I guess that’s the difference between a saint and not-yet saints. Her focus was on the Master; ours is too often on ourselves.

And so they woke him up and, can you believe it, accused him of not caring! Master, do you not care? We are going down!

And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Quiet now! Be calm!’ And the wind dropped, and all was calm again.

Jesus’ words participate in the power of the words God spoke to the sea in the beginning of creation (First Reading): Come thus far, I said, and no farther: here your proud waves shall break. And the words of Psalm 106 today likewise reinforce the sovereignty of God’s power over the waves: He stilled the storm to a whisper: all the waves of the sea were hushed.

Many of us have had this experience. We found that the storm, whatever it may have been, was stilled to a whisper and the waves of the sea were hushed. The Apostles were ‘filled with awe’ and asked, ‘Who can this be?’ Jesus had led them another step deeper into the mystery of his divine human identity. Thanks to the Scriptures he has led us too.`

Monday, 8 June 2015

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark:26-34

Jesus said to the crowds, 'This is what the kingdom of heaven is like .. . ' I bet they paid rapt attention. Who doesn't want to know what the kingdom of heaven is like?
There are some explanations, of course, which people don't find attractive, and neither do I. Sitting on a cloud, playing the harp and singing holy songs or crying out 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' all day is not my idea of heaven.
But then I don't find the descriptions of heaven you often get from guests at funerals compelling either. A giant golf course; a fisherman's paradise; a pub with free beer. No, as entertaining as these activities may be I am certain their attractiveness would soon wane.
So what is heaven like?
I recall a 4 am call-out to Accidents and Emergency at the RPA during the time I was chaplain there. A middle-aged man had died suddenly. I was there within 12 minutes and administered the rites of the Church. His wife was there with her fourteen year old son. When the mother was called in to fill out some hospital forms I got to have a 40 minute chat with the boy, who told me all about himself and his dad. After a while he asked, 'So what is heaven like?' I told him a story someone once told me. And here it is.
"A man died and came to the pearly gates. St Peter showed him to a huge brick wall with doorway in it. They went in and there was a table and a chair beside a mountain of blank sheets of paper and a mountain of pencils. On the table was a little silver bell.
St Peter told the man that he should sit down and write on the paper all the things he wanted - houses, cars, servants - and so on. He said, 'When you've finished ring the bell and the angels will set it all up for you. Then we'll give you some more time to think of other things you might have overlooked and then we'll have to brick the door in and you'll stay there behind the wall for all eternity.'
The man set to work and didn't stop writing for weeks and weeks until finally he couldn't think of a single thing more he might want. He called St Peter and was amazed to see all his wishes fulfilled in an instant. It was magnificent, beautiful, incredible! What he liked most of all were all the people he had asked for to just be his servants.
After living in his paradise for some weeks he had filled another small mountain of paper sheets with things he had thought of. Then St Peter came to close up the doorway. The man was delighted with himself and his wonderful world. He said to St Peter, 'You know, when I was on earth I have to admit I did some pretty evil and rotten things, and I was never sorry. How come I now get to go to heaven?'
St Peter answered abruptly, 'But this is not heaven'.
'But I have everything I've ever wanted,' said the man, 'so what is heaven like?'
St Peter paused for a moment and then told him in a slightly confidential tone, 'When they were making this wall, I noticed one of the angels was a little careless and left a tiny pinhole in the mortar. I think if you pull that cart up against the wall and put a barrel on it, and stand on tippie toe, I think you might be able to see a micro dot of heaven.'
The door was sealed and the man immediately did as St Peter had suggested. He climbed up on the barrel and peered through the tiny hole. 'Wow!' he exclaimed and his mouth fell open. 'Wooow!' he cried again.
You know this happened many years ago but that man has never stepped off that barrel. He has been standing there on tippie toe all this time just staring at that teensy weensy bit of heaven. And do you know something else, he has never closed his mouth either."