Who needs to be reminded of that?

A few years ago I went to visit a friend. My friend looked at my crucifix with a certain distaste saying “You Catholics are always promoting that horrific and dark symbol of suffering, who needs to be reminded of that?”

It is true that Catholics venerate and exalt the Crucifix to remind themselves of Jesus’s death and suffering, however, it is far more than a dark and horrific symbol. It is a reminder of the Divine self-gift of love which is 
the gesture by God that invites us to believe and trust in His mercy and love, opening ourselves to his salvation. This Sunday’s Gospel for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross speaks of this Truth: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Hence, when we see the Crucifix we ought to believe in the Father’s loving gift, of that which is most precious to him, his only beloved son.

This belief in the Divine 
Love of God made manifest on the Cross is indispensable for our salvation. The Crucifixion is something we all need reminding of because of original sin, which has left us wounded with a distorted vision. Remember how Adam’s sin made him see God in a distorted way as if he was vindictive and harsh? How Adam hid with Eve behind the bush in shame and how we do the same after our personal sins? As a result of this lack of trust on our part in God, God wanted to prove his love and mercy for us by sending his Son. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas says, of Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross, that Man now “knows how much God loves him and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation.” Similarly another theologian, the Cistercian Roch Kereszty, says that owing to our wounded state from original sin “man needed more than just a moral exhortation and a divine offer of grace to convert him” he needed “tangible evidence for the reality of His infinite compassion and of His holiness.”

Therefore, it is the witness of Divine 
Love that summons us out of our imprisoned guilt and despair towards salvation. Catholics lift up the Cross of Christ  in order to exalt God’s love and mercy which we need to grasp in order to have the confidence to open ourselves to God’s life saving mystery. Who needs to be reminded of that? We all do.

Gospel Reflection for the 24th  Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (John 3: 13-17)

Love your neighbour as yourself

love your neighbour as yourselfBeing in the Church can make life difficult. Having to throw in your lot with such a mixed bag of characters presents us with unpleasant possibilities: difficult fellow pew-dwellers, boring ceremonies, unwelcome teachings, constant demands on our charity… It’s hard not to sympathise with those who choose the more peaceful and exalted path of ‘spirituality’ over against the mundane demands of ‘religion’. For those who want individual enlightenment and solo salvation rather than put up with the messy reality of Church life, ‘spirituality’ presents an easy path.

An easy path, maybe, but not the path of life. Jesus makes it abundantly clear in this Sunday’s gospel reading that following him always includes being actively caught up in the network of relationships we call ‘the Church’. ‘If your brother sins against you’, says Jesus, you must not simply abandon him and trod on towards your own personal nirvana, rather you must take your relationship seriously and correct him – alone at first, and then in the presence of one or two others, and finally in the presence of the local Church. And if the offending brother refuses to listen at each stage, then he is considered equal to ‘a Gentile or a tax collector’.

There are two implicit commandments of Church life in this scenario. The one is to correct one’s brother, and the other is to listen to one’s correctors. Ultimately both of these actions are aspects of the glue that binds the Church together: charity. If our Church-relationships are weak in love, we will easily avoid the hard tasks of advising our brothers and sisters, on the one hand, and listening carefully to their advice on the other.

Perhaps some reflection on the Golden Rule, cited by St Paul in the second reading, can help us face up to these duties of Church life: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. If you know yourself in the light of your sin and God’s grace, you know that you are weak – even if well-intentioned – and in need of constant help and encouragement on the homeward path to heaven. Loving your neighbour as yourself, then, means offering the help and encouragement your neighbour might need.

Church life, especially correction and obedience, can be difficult, but it is the arena in which our charity is tested and grows. We Christians are not solitary spirits, kitted out with blinkers. We are pilgrims on the same path, invited to come home together, with none of our brothers and sisters left behind. This is the reality of religion, this is the Church, this is charity, this is the pilgrim path of Jesus, who has gone ahead of us without leaving us behind, ‘for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them’.

Gospel Reflection for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 18:15-20)

An Apprenticeship in Love

crucifix-thornsIt is a good thing for us that God’s ways are not man’s ways. God understands our weaknesses and still loves us. This is evidenced by the way Jesus takes Peter under his wing, promising to build His Church on Peter’s confession of faith. Such a turn of events might not have been possible according to ‘man’s ways’. That a lowly fisherman should be given the opportunity to become a fisher of men, that beautiful task, reflects God’s wisdom. However, like any beginner in his new trade, Peter has to learn and grow into it.

‘This must not happen to you’ Peter exclaims, remonstrating with Jesus about His determination to go to Jerusalem (Matthew 16:22). The apprentice seemingly knows a better way than the Master craftsman. He does not understand Jesus’ method and so needs to be taught. After the resurrection however, he becomes a tireless defender of the reality of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. For example, remonstrating with his fellow Christians after the resurrection he writes ‘the price of your ransom from the futile way of life handed down from your ancestors was paid, not in anything perishable like silver or gold, but in precious blood as of a blameless and spotless lamb, Christ’ (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Yet this transformation took time. Peter’s skill was honed, often painfully, during his time of apprenticeship. It is a story of ups and downs. He is Rock, yet in today’s Gospel Jesus refers to him as Satan. Peter witnesses Jesus’ glory on the mount of the transfiguration yet he fled the crucifixion. He drew the sword in the garden but again his action was mis-placed; it simply was not that kind of battle.

Our spiritual life is an apprenticeship in love and resembles Peter’s in many ways. It is a story of highs and lows. There are times when we enjoy great consolation, feeling so close to our Lord. Then there are other times when we feel we are a million miles away. Loving God can be difficult. We are told we will have ‘to take up our cross’ (Matthew 16:24). In today’s first reading the Prophet Jeremiah speaks of the trials bearing witness to God has brought him. Similarly, Christians in Iraq today are suffering terribly because of their love for Christ. Like Peter, they confess Jesus as the Son of the living God and they are giving their lives because they refuse to relinquish the rock upon which their very being is founded.

Only the conviction of a deep prayer life, rooted in the reality of the living God can sustain us in our trials. Indeed, God’s ways are not man’s. That is why it is only in the light of Christ’s suffering that human suffering can have any meaning. It is in this school of self-giving love that we are shown how to renounce ourselves for God and neighbour, even unto death.

Gospel Reflection for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 16:21-27)

 

Keys of the Kingdom

 

keysIn recent times Jehovah Witnesses have been standing outside the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, the main street of Dublin, Ireland, holding aloft copies of a book entitled, What does the Bible Really Say? On a number of occasions I have stopped to engage in conversation with them, beginning the conversation a little bit facetiously with the question, “Well, tell me, what does the Bible really say?”

Jehovah Witnesses are just one of a vast array of groups and individuals who claim to possess the sole true interpretation of Scripture – and yet most of these interpretations differ from each other to varying degrees. As the highly esteemed historian, Brad S. Gregory, writes, the assertion that Scripture alone is a self-sufficient basis for Christian faith and life has produced “an open-ended welter of competing and incompatible interpretations of Luther’s “one certain rule”” (The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society).

The fruit of this kind of interpretation, uncoupled from Tradition and the Church’s authority, has today gone beyond the confines of Scripture to embrace any aspect of life and meaning you wish to think of. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was at pains to highlight the dangers of this development, famously referring to “the dictatorship of relativism.”

Today’s Gospel reading presents us with one of the passages that that undergirds the claims of the Catholic Church concerning the papacy: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” Jesus’s words are a response to Peter’s answer to His question, “who do you say I am?” Peter answers that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, an answer that no merely human powers of intelligence could have afforded him. Peter’s insight is inspired by the Father in heaven. It is knowledge that is possible through faith alone.

Further on Our Lord proclaims to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” When viewed in the light of this conferral of authority, the manner in which the canon of Scripture was established should cause us all to stop and to reflect.

In brief, the work that culminated in the collection of writings that we now accept as the New Testament began in the second century and was only concluded in the fourth or fifth century. It was the work of tradition in its sacramental form, that is to say, of apostolic succession. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once wrote, “Scripture became Scripture through the tradition” (Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today). The preeminent authority in this process was the Roman see.

Without tradition in the sacramental form of apostolic succession there could have been no New Testament so that, as Benedict asserts, “we are caught in a contradiction when we affirm the one while wanting to deny the other.”

It ought to be a cause of profound gratitude on our part that the Lord in his mercy has granted us the authority of Peter and his successors, along with that of his brothers in the episcopate, the successors of the apostles, in this way protecting us from the vast array of erroneous truth claims concerning faith and morals that constantly assail us from all sides.

Gospel Reflection for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 16:13-20)

 

‘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)