The Irish Dominicans are always fond of recalling memories of past brethren. One particular memory is that of our brother William Barden, Archbishop of Isfahan of the Latins. Archbishop William was noted for his intense spiritual life and his deep insights into the Christian mystery. One day, just before the community processed out for Christmas Mass, one of the brethren on noticing a lady praying the stations of the Cross said how ridiculous it was. Fr. Barden, as he then was, said gently “ Leave her, it is all the same mystery.”
Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel tells the Pharisees that all the teachings of the Prophets and the whole Law can be summed up in two great commandments of love: Love of God being the greatest and first and Love of neighbour being the second. Love of God is the foundation for love of others. St. Augustine said love of neighbour is sure proof of love of God. One could not love authentically without first loving God. What seems like two commandments are really one great commandment to love. In the end Archbishop William is right, it is all the same mystery, the mystery of Love.
If it is the same mystery we should disregard the temptation at times to see God and our neighbour at opposite ends. Perhaps there are times when we feel we have to forgo the delights of prayer or time with God in order to help someone, we may feel disgruntled to be called away from our solitude with the Lord. However, this can be a false dichotomy because if we get up and go to help our neighbour we are in fact choosing God as well. We recall our Lord’s words “ You did it to me.” Our love and service to others is really love and service of God. Thus, we cannot love God with all our hearts and minds and souls without loving each other. It is all the same mystery of love.
Gospel Reflection for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matt 22: 34-40)
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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)
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Being 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)
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It 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)
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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)
There are many ways to come to know a society. How a society understands and presents itself to the world will be reflected in those things it values most. Various indicators reveal something of the forces that shape the way a society operates.
Imagine a diplomat from a distant country, sent to establish relations with an unknown territory. The Stock Exchange and the Government’s Budget figures might offer an economic perspective of that territory, highlighting its socio-economic landscape. The numbers of people emigrating to other parts of the world may tell a story as would its reception of those who arrive on its shores. The clothes people wear, their hairstyles and the music they listen to has the power to define whole generations. Even the statute books paint a picture of that conduct which a society deems incompatible with the common good.
Is it not the same with Jesus? He reveals God to man in many ways. Commandments are one such way of making God known to us. Talk of commandments inevitably brings with it allusions to obligation and conformity to rules. It is easy to see commandments as a list of prohibitions, limiting freedom, spontaneity and fun. ‘Thou shalt not’ resonates in every age. Jesus however, links keeping His commandments with love. There are undoubtedly things God commands us not to do but even then we ought to understand what it is that such prohibitions says about God. When we are commanded not to kill, not to commit adultery and not to steal, what is God communicating to us? Should it be seen as a restriction on our freedom to do these things or is it a lesson in authentic loving of others?
God’s charter of charity is much simpler that the reams of regulations accrued on the statute books of the state legislature over the centuries. It was given to Moses in Ten Commandments. Not only are the content of these directives ordered towards authentic love but their brevity too, according to G.K. Chesterton, should be understood in relation to God’s benevolence. He claims that “the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted: precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden.”
Furthermore, if this were not simple enough, Jesus teaches that the whole of the Law and the Prophets hang on the twin precepts of love of God and love of neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40). Whether or not any new foreign diplomats will arrive on our shores to establish relations with us is uncertain but we can be sure to expect a return visit from our Lord. He says so in today’s Gospel. One wonders what He will make of our society. Will He want to establish relations with us when He sees the things we value?
Gospel Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Easter – Year A (John 14:15-21)
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A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; One from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Yet ours were the grief He bore, our sorrows He carried; He was crushed for our iniquities; All of us like sheep have gone astray; But The Righteous One My Servant will justify the many and bear their iniquities.
Some of the most dramatic images we have of Mother Teresa reveal a saint who reached out to those truly on society’s fringes in Calcutta – the suffering and destitute. Here was a woman who brought Christ’s love and mercy into the lives of those the world seemed to abandon, transforming lives marred by fear and anguish through disease and extreme poverty.
In seeking to understand the awesome and life-giving reality that is Good Friday – this group of people I have been describing are a very good place to start. For no distant God of ideas or mere rules could speak meaningfully of life, hope and love to those who suffer. Only a God who himself tasted the bitter word and stigma of public shame and rejection could hope to touch the minds and hearts of those who have themsevles suffered so. This is where we begin to glimpse the essence of what Good Friday is – A day when Christ himself entered into the extremes of suffering and death. A day, when God assured us that His love and mercy knows no limits, no boundaries, but rather, seeks to reach out and save a suffering humanity even amidst the very depths of pain or sin.
The great Swiss theologian Von Balthasar wonderfully saw in the Cross, an act of love so great, it is beyond anything humanity could ever have imagined. This was the work of a God who – out of love – had already sent his only Son, at the Incarnation, all the way into the depths of our humanity. Jesus’s own earthly life speaks to us of a divine love which sought always to reach out into the depths of human existence, most especially towards those on the fringes. For Jesus searched out the God-forsaken.
A Friend of Tax-collectors and sinners, Jesus’ response to the pride and righteousness of the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel, gives us a vivid insight into His mission of love and redemption – for he tells us that he comes “for those in need of a physician – sinners in need of repentance.” The lost, the sick, the suffering – it is such people that Jesus found, healed and restored.
So why did Jesus, God-made-man, seek out the fringes, and those in the extremes of sin and suffering? Our lives show us that both sin and suffering are inevitable human realities – for the atheist as much as for the saint. We can surely recognise the meaningfulness of a suffering God for those who themselves physically suffer. In reality, however, it is sin which makes us suffer most – it is sin alone which possesses the power to push any of us to the true fringes of existence.
For in wilfully turning away from our true good – that is, following Christ and His example, we ourselves bear a stigma that burdens the heart and mind. It is sin which darkens our own horizons, diminishing us far more than any poverty or physical disease ever could. Our goal, our earthly journey towards Truth, Goodness, Beauty and love itself, is blocked and ends in death, only through sin. The great mystery of God’s redemption, however, is that, it is the utter tragedy of such sin, man’s felix culpa, which drew down, our divine physician.
This is what brings us back to that First Good-Friday. For on that day, we saw most clearly, upon the Cross, and in that passion evoked so eloquently by the Prophet Isaiah, the unimaginable depths that God’s love will descend to in order to reach the sinner. In the extremities of evil, sin and death which Christ embraced and conquered on that day, we truly witness the value even the lowliest sinner possesses in God’s eyes. For it is the immensity of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness for each and every one of us, that drew Christ to the Cross that fateful day.
The most awesome reality this Good Friday, and indeed every day, is that such love and forgiveness -the full power of Christ Himself is still flowing, through that Church He instigated. The forgiveness and promise of paradise, offered to the repentant thief, in those final moments upon the Cross, is ours now- active with no less force- in the boundless mercy of Confession.
That divine Body – love, truth and goodness itself – given freely upon the Cross, is still offered each day for us- upon the Eucharistic altar. So we see that passion, that divine love displayed so vividly on that First Good Friday endures for each of us to this day. That is why Good Friday remains forever so, very, very Good.
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