‘Us’ and ‘Them’

Union in Christ 2“The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these [other] religions” (Nostra Aetate, par. 2). In this document of the Second Vatican Council, the Church commends all those who navigate life’s choppy waters using what is true and what is holy for guides. These are the marks of an authentic search for God. As such, many false searches for ultimate fulfilment fall when measured against this standard because those who genuinely pursue what is true and holy will find Christ who is the truth (John 14:6). Like the evangelist Matthew, the Council Fathers were trying to address the tension between ‘us’ and ‘them’. That the world is full of many different groups of people seems obvious enough, yet we are all people nonetheless. There is much diversity though we have much in common.

Those fundamental truths of our humanity relating to our origin and our destiny are intricately bound up with God. When it comes to dialogue with non-Christian religions, we can all generally appreciate this.  Living out this reality though, in various times, cultures and contexts is not as clear cut. The emergence of ‘our God’ and ‘their god’, ‘our beliefs’ and ‘their beliefs’, give lie to that lazy claim that all religions are pretty much the same. The Christian claim is quite unique. Not every religion claims that God assumed human nature, walked the face of the earth, was crucified, died and rose again in Jesus Christ.

The Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel is searching. Her daughter is tormented by a devil. How desperately does she need to find that which is true and that which is holy to relieve her daughter’s unholy agony? The woman’s search led her “out from her district” (Matthew 15:22), beyond the frontiers of her own limited cultural context. In Jesus a new horizon appears with new possibilities. Kneeling before Jesus, her faith journey has reached its conclusion. He is the climax of all our searching.

Though it is of central importance to respect other people’s beliefs, the Church “is duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life” (Nostra Aetate, par. 2). Christians are charged with the task of helping our non-Christian brothers and sisters on their journey to Christ. We have been commissioned to put a name and a face on that deep desire for God in every human heart. Even Jesus grappled with the ‘us’ and ‘them’ of today’s Gospel but as He has shown with the Canaanite woman, ‘us’ and ’them’ become one in Him.

 

Gospel Reflection for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 15:21-28)

 

 

The Assumption of Mary

 

AssumptionWe live in a world of much sin and death. All around us, in both our personal lives and in the news, we see signs of great tragedy and misfortune. Wars, persecutions, famine, and economic hardship are the misfortune of many. Yet, amidst all these difficulties, there is a women who has gone before us into Heaven. Today we celebrate the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. The Assumption is an event which should give hope to all of us who journey through life thirsting for the Kingdom of God.

Mary has not gone up to a place where she no longer cares for those of us here below. She has not gone to some exotic Nirvana where she no longer feels or cares for those who suffer on Earth. She has gone to the place where Love Himself lives. It is in this place that she intercedes for us on Earth. She sees each one of us from Heaven, and prays for us to continue our journey towards Heaven.

In the Assumption, Mary shows us our final destination. We see where we eventually hope to be. She is like a mother who waits at the finish line of a long and hard race. At times the running may be hard and we may become tempted to slow down or stop altogether. At moments such as this we turn and look up and see Mary our mother waiting at the finish line. She waits for us in Heaven. She tells us to continue our journey of repentance from sin and to continue in faith and hope because the race can be won, thank God.

This is a message that our world needs to hear. So much of the sin and violence we see in our world is committed by people who have stopped making that journey to the finish line. Somewhere along the way they decided to stop the race and make the race track their home. They fight among themselves over who will own the race track.

But the Christian must never stop the race. We must always keep our eyes on Mary, who reminds us where we are going. This world, and everything in it, are not our final destination, Heaven is. To the extent that they lead us towards God, we should use and enjoy the goods of this world. But the home of an athlete is not the race track. Our final home is not this world but the Heavenly Jerusalem.

There is something pathetic about all perpetrators of sin, injustice and violence in the world. While some strive to finish the race and, like Mary, live in Heaven, others choose to fight over a piece of the race track here below. Unfortunately for them, they do not own the track. The owner of the Stadium will return and judge the performance of the athletes. Those who ran the race and kept their hearts close to Mary, will be in better shape than those who forgot she was there at the finishing line, supporting us. To forget the Assumption of Mary, is to forget what it is we are called to.

 

 

 

Stormy Waters

shipstorm1How often amid life’s stormy seas do we feel like we are alone, abandoned by God? Our Lord is always in heaven and wherever that is, it doesn’t seem to be here where I am right now, at this moment, struggling with the demands of daily life. It is as though Jesus is away praying alone on the mountain, far removed from my woes. It can be difficult sometimes to live the hope we profess when we are on the verge of shipwreck.

The important point of today’s Gospel is that Jesus is not as far removed from us as we might think. This awareness of God in our midst puts a new perspective on those things that trouble us. Though the disciples did not know it, He had long since departed from the solitude of the mountain and was present with them in their struggles on the open waters. If this is so, perhaps a better question for us to ask might be why Jesus waits until the fourth watch of the night before He intervenes? A long, horrific night had passed for the disciples and it was almost at the break of day, when they were at breaking point themselves, when He decided to help. But why? St. John Chrysostom writes “Christ did not reveal Himself to His disciples until they cried out; for the more intense their fear, the more did they rejoice in His presence.”

Consider the difference between “rejoicing in Christ’s presence”, as Chrysostom puts it, and not hoping in Him. What difference does it make to us as Christians when we profess to believe in God, compared with many of our contemporaries who do not? It is the difference between Peter desperately clinging to life in a battered ship on a storm-tossed sea and his trodding underfoot the very waves that threatened to destroy him. Encountering Christ has the power to transform us in a very real way. It has to be this way. If our belief in God does not have any real life implications for the way we live then what is the point of it?

Jesus is the daybreak. The darkness of the night and the violence of the storm give way before the Lord who is peace. Where He is, there is hope. An awareness of Christ in our daily struggles and a deep belief that He alone can deliver us from them presents us with a new reality; a new mode of existence. Life takes on a new eternal significance. Loving Christ is not a guarantee that our voyage will be easy but it is a guarantee that when we are at the point of shipwreck, we have a safe harbour where we can hope to find refuge.

Gospel Reflection for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 14:22-33)

St Dominic – Man of Fire

St DomToday around the world Dominicans are celebrating the Feast of our Holy Father St Dominic. A celebration such as this is not just an opportunity to remember the life and legacy of our founder; it is also a gift given to us by the Church in her liturgy to help us on the road to continual conversion, through the pattern of life laid down for us by St Dominic.

In the short responsory from today’s Office of Readings we read that St Dominic is called a ‘man of fire.’ This fire that consumed Dominic was the fire of the Holy Spirit urging him on in the pursuit to win souls for Christ. How did our Holy Father communicate this fire to his followers if not through the pattern of life he left to them?

At its deepest roots the pattern of this life is described as the vita apostolica; an apostolic way of life, modeled on the early Christian Community.  The Friars were sent to preach the gospel in whatever situation they found themselves, convinced that the message of Christ had the power to heal and transform lives. The friars’ preaching needed to issue from an abundance of contemplation to be authentic and in Dominic they found the perfect example.

St Dominic wanted his sons to be contemplative apostles. Their life, like his, needed to be rooted in deep prayer, so that the message that they would communicate would come from the depths of their own relationship with Christ.In the process of canonization the early friars’ recount that Dominic rarely spoke except ‘about God or with God.’  This intensity witnessed by the brothers in the prayer life of Dominic inspired them to imitate their Father, because they realized that the fire that consumed Dominic was borne from his closeness to God; a closeness and intimacy that only comes about through an abundance of contemplation. The primary vehicle that would enable this closeness would be the Liturgy of the Church. For Dominic liturgical life was a way of life that would be the well in which his friars could draw water for holy Preaching. It was the constant flow of the breath of the spirit moving from side to side in the choir. This is why we are told he went feverishly from side to side exciting his sons to sing more bravely and fervently. He understood that to be authentic in preaching one had to be formed and immersed in the ocean of the word of God. The regular canonical life with its deep focus on allowing oneself to be penetrated by the word would be the essential ingredient that would give flavor to the mouth of the preacher and preserve the religious spirit at the same time.

In St Dominic we have a model for facing the challenges presented to us in the Church today. He experienced many disappointments in his evangelizing efforts before the grace of Christ started to open hearts. This is why a feast day is not just a nostalgic remembering. St Dominic shows us that drawing souls to Christ is a supernatural act that must first and foremost be rooted in a deep authentic prayer life – a communion with God that made him a ‘man of fire.’

” Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New”

Personal testimony is a powerful way to speak of the way God’s love can transform people’s lives. “Every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of Heaven is like ….” (Matthew 13:52). In this personal testimony, Matthew is giving an insight into his own faith journey with the Lord. Just a few chapters prior to this he told of how he was sitting at the Customs House and at Jesus’ inivitation, he got up and followed Him (Matthew 9:9). Having become a disciple of the kingdom and having had time to reflect upon it from that early conversion experience at the Customs House, Matthew is now ideally placed in this morning’s Gospel to plumb the depths of what this discipleship means in practice.

He speaks determinedly about the need for a disciple to “bring out from his storeroom things both new and old” (Matthew 13:52). Those who have made a conscious decision to follow Christ usually speak from the heart with an authority borne out of experience. For example, I remember listening to a self-confessed gangster named John Pridmore from London’s East End telling the story of his life both before and after Christ’s transforming love changed his life. He spoke so passionately about his journey from gangland to promised land. While giving his testimony, he readily drew from the broken-ness of his former ways in the hope of deterring other impressionable young people from making the same mistakes he did.

Along with other high profile converts like St. Paul and St. Augustine before him, Pridmore is but one of the countless people in every generation who have become disciples, wounded though they are. It is because they know what it is to be wounded that they make such effective disciples. Their former ways proved incapable of bringing them to the happiness they so craved and thus they sought out Christ, the Way, who proclaims: “now I am making the whole of creation new” (Revelation 21:5).

Matthew’s testimony ensures that there is a value for disciples of the kingdom of Heaven to draw out from the storeroom of their heart all that can be learned from the old self, perhaps especially the broken self, so as to appreciate to the fullest extent the newness of Christ. Reflecting on the old in light of the new is a beautiful way to pray. It inspires thanksgiving in the person who realises more and more everyday the gift of a relationship with God, that pearl of supreme value.

 

Gospel Reflection for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 13:44-52)

 

“O unutterable Love”

 

 

St. Catherine of Siena, in her conversation with God the Father, posed a question regarding creation; “Why did you create, you who are so perfect, who lacks and needs nothing?” The Father answers her saying that He creates us out of his overflowing goodness and love. Hence the creation is fundamentally a free gift of God’s loving benevolence. Therefore, God loves and upholds it in being. This is why St. Catherine says that everywhere she looks she feels to say “O unutterable Love that surrounds my soul.”

However despite this reality of goodness and love Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel reveals a question deep in all our hearts. Father “was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? If so, where does the Darnel come from?” This same question could be rephrased to mean, why is there so many evil acts in the world? Why are innocent people murdered or oppressed? Why is there evil in the first place if the creation is so good and God is a loving God? So often many of these questions baffle us and make us question our faith and the goodness of God.

Jesus anticipates these questions in all our hearts and helps us articulate it through this Gospel. He does not leave us without an answer. It is clear that God did sow good seed and therefore there is indeed goodness in the world. However, Jesus explains that the Devil also sows his seed. In other words, every time for example we choose to hate, to lust, to be greedy, to conspire against others, we allow evil to come into the world, we allow the devil to sow his seed. The devil sows evil when good is absent. Since we are created with freedom of will, we can choose to co-operate with evil and reject grace. Hence, as the old adage says “evil exists when good men do nothing.”

We should never loose sight that though there is evil seed and we ourselves can at times be “subjects” of evil, we can always repent and God’s grace can remove the seeds of vice and plant the seeds of the virtues. The field of our heart can be made anew with a harvest full of fruit to offer the Lord. We ought also to try like St. Catherine to cultivate an awareness of God’s benevolence despite the apparent evil in the world so that we can say with her “ O unutterable Love that surrounds my soul.”

Gospel Reflection for 16th Sunday in Ordinary time- Year A (Mt 13: 24-43)

 

 

Eyes that see, ears that hear.

 

Last October some of the brothers and myself were attending the celebration for the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. After the Liturgy we were invited to a sharing. At the sharing a lady came up to me and started chatting, her face seemed familiar. For a brief moment I thought it could be Sr. Briege McKenna, a person I have always longed to meet since I read her book Miracles do Happen. However, my mental image of how Sr. Briege would look in person made me cast the thought aside. In addition, I also was interested in talking to someone else at the time and so I was in a hurry to get back to my other conversation. When Sr. Briege left one of the brethren turned to me and said “you do know that was Sr. Briege?”I could not believe that the lady I always wanted to meet was right in front of me and I did not recognise her. My opportunity was there and my closed eyes and prevented me from seizing it.
Like that experience with Sr. Briege, how often is the Word of God being addressed to us and we simply do not have the eyes to see nor the ears to hear? What biases and images of Jesus do we hold in our hearts that prevent us from recognising and understanding His Word ? Even if we receive the Word, what fears and anxieties do we have that prevent the Word from flourishing in our lives? What temptations and weaknesses keep our hearts keep distracting us from keeping watch with the Lord? This Sunday’s Gospel challenges us with these questions.
One could say that these questions are unfair and that Jesus seems demanding in the Gospel. We can often feel that it is impossible to really hear Jesus, someone  we do not ‘see’ or ‘hear’ as we do other people. We can feel at times he has abandoned us because when we think of him and talk to him we only hear silence in return. As a result, we can conclude that Jesus is asking too much of us when he tells us to receive his Word with a watchful heart.
However, maybe we need to gain a new perspective on how we hear Him and see Him. While we may not always hear Jesus voice in our hearts, through faith we know that he comes to us all the time, speaking to us constantly through the Sacred Tradition of the Church, through the Sacred Scriptures and through the Church’s teaching authority, the Magisterium. This is how we hear Jesus speaking clearly. We also see Jesus with the eyes of faith in the Eucharist, the sacrament through which he remains with us in Love. How easy it is to go to a Church to visit and spend time with him ‘face to face’ as friends. He waits with open arms to offer us his mercy and grace to give us the eyes that see and the ears that hear.
While I may have lost my opportunity to meet Sr. Briege, we should never loose the opportunity to meet Jesus. Despite our hardness of hearts, our dull hearing, Jesus comes to us over and over again. If we pray earnestly for faith and allow His grace to work in us, quietly but clearly we will hear him say to us “ But happy are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear!” (Matt 13:)
Gospel Reflection for the 15TH  Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 13:1-23)

Hope- Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

 

 

  In preparation for the Easter Triduum ( Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday) our community made a retreat. The priest giving the retreat struck a cord in me when he spoke of the theological virtue of Hope. He remarked that it was his experience that very few people place as much emphasis on Hope as they do on the other two theological virtues, Faith and Love. This was true for me because I had seldom prayed for a greater Hope and yet Hope allows us to gather the vitality and energy we need to live out the Gospel. According to Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi,  says that our Christian Hope is what helps us face the present, “even if it is arduous.” Hence amidst the seeming darkness and despair of our present moments our supernatural sense of Hope as Christians can help us keep aglow with the Spirit and so not be discouraged to live out the Gospel.

 

This reflection on Hope is fitting in light of this Sunday’s feast of St. Peter and St. Paul because both men are witnesses of Hope. Their Hope in a Lord who has conquered sin and death, gave them the energy to overcome all temptations to despair and mediocrity. While these Apostles faced persecutions and the difficulties of the early Christian communities, it was to their faith and hope in Jesus  that they looked for the hope-filled courage to keep going.  Ultimately, they trusted in His grace, despite their weaknesses and failings. They knew the Lord’s heart, they knew he thirsted for their conversion and union with Him. Therefore, they had certain reasons to remain Hopeful.


In the Gospel this Sunday, in the wake of St. Peter’s confession of faith, the Lord affirms his faith with a truth that will become for St. Peter a pillar of his Hope,“ The gates of the underworld can never hold out against” the Church (Matt 16: 17). St. Peter knows then that when the going gets tough, the Lord will always be at his side. However, this is not only a great consolation for the first Pope but for us all especially in times when we see what appears to be a crisis surrounding our lives and the Church. History has shown that the Church, always under attack either from without or within, always reforms herself in the image of her Lord. It is important that our Hope be grounded on this fact. In addition, since we are members of the Church it also means that if we cooperate with Christ, his grace will triumph in us always reforming and purifying us.

 

 In short, our Hope is in the Lord both now and forever.

 

Gospel for this Sunday’s feast of St. Peter and St. Paul MT 16:13-19

 

 

 

Eating is Believing

communionChristianity is often characterised as a ‘religion of the book’, alongside Judaism and Islam, but it seems to me that one of the reasons this definition fails is that it leaves out a central aspect of Christian religious practice: eating and drinking.

On the feast of Corpus Christi this is what we celebrate: Christ’s body and blood, given to us under the appearance of bread and wine. Given to us for what reason? Not to nourish us physically, certainly, not to sustain mere biological life, but to enable us to live with ‘eternal life’ pulsing in our veins, with the life of Christ animating our every moment: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him’.

We are probably fairly comfortable with this mystery – we have grown up with it, and its strangeness no longer strikes us. In the ancient world, food and religion were certainly connected, above all in the practice of sacrifice. In ancient Greek religion, for example, an animal would be sacrificed in honour of a god, and its thigh-bones wrapped in fat would be burnt on a fire, so that the smoke could ‘feed’ the god in question. Such a practice was designed to curry favour with the gods – the sacrificer has given of his best in the sacrifice, and he hopes for the god’s best efforts in return.

The Eucharist turns this standard scheme of sacrifice upside down. Just as God fed Israel in the desert with manna, so the Eucharist is God’s way of feeding us. Yes, we offer Him a meagre amount of bread and wine as our sacrifice, but the real sacrifice in question is Christ’s offering of himself to the Father, and the real feeding in question is God’s nourishment of his people, not their feeding him.

This is all well and good, and the notion of being fed by God might be comforting to us, but this idea is just the sort of thing that made Sigmund Freud see religion as essentially ‘infantile’. He saw religious practice as stemming out of childhood anxieties about being fed, and the Eucharist he would dismiss as a symptom of this repressed anxiety.

How can we as Christians respond to this suspicious attitude to the eating and drinking which is so central to our worship of God? It seems to me that the best way to respond is by pointing out that all acts of eating and drinking involve a childlike recognition of our limits. We are not supermen, we have basic bodily needs which we must respect, and which make us dependent on each other. This was exactly the experience of Israel in the desert: ‘God humbled you, He made you feel hunger, He fed you with manna’ (Deut 8:3).

The Eucharist is the sacramental embodiment of this principle – we humans are not self-sufficient, we need to be fed, physically and spiritually. We should not be ashamed, then, of feeling like little children as we approach the Bread of Life – children, after all, are blessedly free of the illusions of independence which complicate and corrupt the lives of grown-ups.

Ministers of Mystery

cloud-question-mark-originalThe Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC No. 234) holds the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity to be the central mystery of Christian faith and life. “It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of the truths of faith.” Two points of interest, among many in this understanding of the most Holy Trinity, may be considered.

The first point refers to the importance of the concept of mystery. Any religious thought that does not treat God as being above and beyond what is knowable by the light of natural reason, probably does not have much to offer by way of relevance to a lived human reality that is steeped in mystery. This is an extension of the modern tendency of putting everything, including God, in safe, manageable categories. However, it does a dis-service to the oft-times unsafe and unmanageable certainty of realities like life and death, hope and despair. Great system builders like St. Thomas Aquinas were great system builders precisely because they saw their system in the mystery of God and not in spite of it. By constantly pushing the best of our rational human understanding of the world to its limit, we Christians become Ministers of Mystery. Not that God as Trinity could be known in any way other than God’s own revelation to us of course but we become Ministers of Mystery by encouraging our non-believing contemporaries to provide solid grounds for their claims. The inevitable inability to do so within the limited framework of thought underpinning the rationalist ideology, introduces possibilities for a broader discussion into the nature of being.

The second point refers to the pre-eminence of this mystery among the mysteries of faith. It is no coincidence that we believers usually begin our prayers by marking an invisible trace of the cross on our bodies, invoking the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is one of the most simple prayers and yet it so rich. The section of the Catechism mentioned above speaks of this mystery as the source; the most fundamental assertion of faith. However, not only is it the source but it is also the end to which the whole divine economy is ordered (CCC No. 260). Jesus’ prayer to His Father “that they may also be in us” (John 17:21), is our invitation to participate eternally in God’s own life. Thus, we usually end our prayer as we begun; by invoking the Most Holy Trinity.

God’s love for the world is described in today’s Gospel (John 3:16). That God continues to reach out to us is amazing to think about really, given the way the world treats God. The feast of the Most Holy Trinity, that community of pure love, should serve as a reminder to us that we are being caught up in the greatest love story ever told.

Gospel Reflection for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity Year A (John 3:16-18)