Gay Walsh

Second Sunday of Easter 2021 – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he said this, he breathed upon them and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit”…Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” John 20, 19-31

Today’s gospel-reading has the potential to lift us up and fill us with renewed hope, if only we can absorb its message. In asserting this, I have to admit to struggling with part of it for many years. I just could not understand how Jesus, in breathing on his disciples and commissioning them to do as he had done, could say to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained” (John 19, 22-23).

Jesus had spent his public ministry reaching out to people who had been rejected and marginalised by the religious authorities who had labelled these people as public sinners. Why then would he tell his disciples to hold on tight to peoples’ sins and, in so doing, to discard them as the religious leaders had done? I found a solution to my puzzlement in a book entitled Jesus Risen in Our Midst. It was written by Religious Sister, Sandra Schneiders IHM, a former professor at the Jesuit Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She has written more than a dozen books, many of which were on aspects of Religious Life. I had found some of them really heavy-going, so I picked up Jesus Risen in Our Midst with some hesitation. To my surprise, it gripped my attention. In explaining Jesus’ commission to the disciples (quoted above), Sandra Schneiders noted that biblical scholars translating John’s Gospel from the original Greek added the word “sin” to the second part of Jesus’ words of commissioning. Schneiders points out that Jesus did direct his disciples to forgive people’s sins, but to hold tightly to those people, NOT their sins. Isn’t it true that we Christians have often been urged to reject the sin, but not the sinner? If we were to hold fast to rejecting sinners, none of us could claim to being acceptable to Jesus, and none of us could claim to be sharers in his ministry. So, hanging on tightly to our sins and the sins of others would imply self-loathing and the rejection of others. – a total contradiction of the commission given to anyone who would be his disciple.

The almost incredible aspect of John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to and commissioning of the disciples locked away in guilt and fear is that Jesus puts into practice exactly what he commissions those disciples to go out and do. By offering them the greeting of Peace/Shalom and then repeating it, Jesus demonstrates that he is not holding on to their sins of betrayal, denial and desertion, but forgiving them utterly and without reservation, proclaiming that he wants to hold on to (retain) them.

Just in case his community failed to grasp the fact that Jesus was modelling for them the mission of forgiveness he wanted them to take on and continue, John repeated it. A week later, when Thomas had rejoined the disciples, John recounts that Jesus appeared again, greeting them with: “Peace be with you”. Jesus was reaching out to them all, yet again, in reassurance and reconciliation. Reminding them of the promise he had made to them in the course of his final meal with them:
“Peace is my farewell to you, my peace is my gift to you; I do not give it to you as the world gives peace. So, do not be distressed or fearful” (John 14, 27).
We can understand that the disciples had locked themselves away because they were afraid of being done to death as Jesus had been. We can also appreciate that they were probably filled with guilt at the manner in which they had deserted Jesus when he most needed them. But why could they not accept the testimony of Mary Magdalen who had informed them of her encounter with the Risen Jesus? She had gone directly to them, declaring: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20, 18).

It is true that, to the Jews of the time, a woman’s testimony was regarded as entirely unreliable. As a consequence, they were not allowed to be witnesses in legal proceedings. It’s also possible that all those male disciples had dismissed her words as “typical female hysteria”! In John’s telling of this story, Jesus has to repeat his greeting of peace to the ten disciples to convince them that he had risen, and that he had really forgiven them. It seems to me that the focus is put on Thomas because he had already earned a reputation for speaking out without thinking. His reaction to the other disciples repeating: “We have seen the Lord” is entirely predictable. He simply was not going to be convinced by anyone’s assertions. Maybe he, too, was struggling with believing that even Jesus could forgive the enormity of their failure as a group. Given his reputation for being outspoken, it’s entirely understandable that he could not accept that anyone so brutally tortured and done to death as Jesus was could possibly come back to life.

What then is the point of this resurrection account from John? To begin with, we have to remind ourselves that all four Gospel writers offer different accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, at times seemingly contradicting one another. Let’s remember that they were not writing historical accounts. Rather, their intention was to invite their communities to stop and reflect on their own faith in the assertion that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Nobody will ever be able to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead. In the same way, none of us can prove our love for another person. We can offer words of love and tangible expressions of the love we profess, but we can never prove it.

Thomas had been told by his close friends that Jesus was alive, and that they had been talking with him. Typically, he just wasn’t going to buy their story. He wanted categorical proof. He wasn’t going to accept stories. He would not be satisfied until he met face-to-face with the resurrected Jesus whose stone-dead body had been sealed in a tomb just a few days before. What he got, however, was an encounter with the risen Jesus that threw him into such a tailspin that he dropped all his intentions of conducting an autopsy. The interaction between Thomas and Jesus is held up to us to teach us that searching for proof of Jesus’ resurrection, or, indeed, for proof of the existence of God, is utter foolishness. Rather, what we all most need is experiencing the presence of the divine in the very ordinary actions, decisions, encounters and complexities of our day-to-day lives.

I believe that Jesus breathed God’s Spirit into the disciples, Thomas included, in that upper room where they had locked themselves away from real life. I believe that same Spirit has been breathed into each of us. We know that we get glimpses of that Spirit at work in the love, generosity, compassion and forgiveness of people we encounter and, indeed in our acts of care and compassion towards others. The crucified and risen Jesus lives again in each of us. Maybe we have to get to know him a little better by first touching the scars we carry. Then, we might be able to go out and start practicing resurrection.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Easter the Resurrection – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

On entering the tomb, they (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) saw a young man sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. This frightened them thoroughly, but he reassured them: “You need not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has been raised up; he’s not here. See the place where they laid him. Go now and tell his disciples and Peter: ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him just as he told you.’” Mark 16, 1-8

Since the onset of Covid, the restrictions around public gatherings have meant that we have been unable to conduct the funerals of deceased family members, relatives, community members and close friends in the manner to which we have grown accustomed. There have been no vigil services, wakes and sharing of memories. Numbers of those able to attend funerals have been severely restricted, and there has been almost no scope for refreshments and chats after a burial has taken place. It took me some time to appreciate the impact of these restrictions on those grieving for the person they had lost. I came to appreciate just how important are a cup of tea and a chat at the conclusion of a funeral. They are, I suggest, integral to the grieving process.

If we don’t share memories of the deceased, if we don’t share with those we know and trust something of our feelings of emptiness and loss, we can get stuck in our grief, we can get caught in forever visiting the grave of the one we have lost. And there is a consequent risk of becoming unhealthily locked in the past. That is not to dismiss or belittle visits to the grave of a loved one. Those visits can be part of healthy grieving. However, it’s important not to become trapped there.

In Mark’s account of the three women coming to visit the grave of Jesus, there is not the slightest hint that they were coming with thoughts of resurrection. Having so recently watched the execution of the one who was so important to them, they were coming with a supply of perfumed oils to anoint Jesus’ body. That was a natural and understandable part of their grieving process. But they were stopped in their tracks by an unnamed messenger, who was clearly expecting them and who not only gave them proof of Jesus’ resurrection, but also gave them a direction to share the good news with their friends, including information as to where to find him.

It’s important at this point to stop and look at how Mark had structured his Gospel for the community for whom he had written it. He launched his Gospel with the words: “The good news of Jesus Christ begins here” (Mark 1, 1). Then he spent almost 16 chapters elaborating on that beginning, at the end of which he handed it over to his community, urging them to involve themselves in continuing the story of that good news. If we are participants in the story, not mere observers, we, too, are being urged to continue the story of God’s love for the world expressed in the life, mission, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I read recently an article by a Lutheran pastor, in which he paraphrased the message the three women were given by the young man in white when they stepped into Jesus’ otherwise empty tomb: “I know you’re here for Jesus of Nazareth. But he’s not here. You need to go and do something else with your grief. There’s a good life out there in front of you. Go now and tell some of your friends what I’m telling you: Jesus has been raised, and he’s a good bit ahead of you. He’s gone on to Galilee. That’s where you can catch up with him.” (Peter W. Marty, It’s Easter. Step into the Future, The Christian Century, March 9, 2021)

We belong to a Church that will forever be in process. The process is not about changing the foundations on which it has been built. – the Good News of Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection. But it is about living that Good News in ways that will make an impact for good in a world that is also in the process of unprecedented change. And that is uncomfortable. There are those around us who want to reclaim a comfortable, secure, nostalgic past. We’re not always sure of the next step. For many, comfort is more manageable than venturing into an unknown future. However, the resounding message of Easter is to open ourselves to God’s confidence in a future opened up for us by the resurrection of Jesus.

When we gather in faith to bury our dead, we can forget that they, too, were people of faith who, like us, have struggled to express that faith as fully and effectively as they (and we) might have hoped. But let’s not forget that they probably would want us to keep on living with purpose, love and hope, doing our little bit to contribute positively to the world of which we are but a part. If our grieving were to be interrupted by a young man in white, we might hear something like this: “Friends, I know your thoughts are for the one you have lost, and even for yourselves and how you will cope. But, be assured that there’s good stuff ahead, a future into which you can step with hope. And Jesus, about whom you know something, is already in that future. Moreover, he’s waiting for you to notice and catch up.”

In a truly inspirational presentation to the Trinity Institute, New York (2007), Moral Theology Professor Peter J. Gomes from the Harvard School of Divinity spoke of the role that Christians have in continuing to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ begun by Mark in his Gospel. In speaking of our role in what he calls “God’s Unfinished Future”, Professor Gomes highlighted the role of hope. Christian hope is clinging to the certainty that even when things don’t turn out right, we will continue to endure, trusting in a God who will never abandon us. In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that hope is born of faithful endurance through the trials that come our way. It is not optimism that seduces us into pretending that all is right with the world while we fail to look at the dark side. Paul wrote: “We know that affliction makes for endurance, and endurance for tested virtue, and tested virtue for hope. And this hope will not leave us disappointed, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5, 3-5).

Easter does not deny the reality of disappointment, betrayal, suffering and pain. However, it does proclaim reason for hope in the human condition. If we dare to open our eyes, we come to know that the risen Christ is present to us in the compassion, care and acceptance we experience in engaging with every good person who in his/her way continues to share the good news of Jesus. We do that, too, when we rise above life’s difficulties to give love and life to others, to mend and renew broken relationships, to proclaim in our actions the good news of the empty tomb. Easter is God’s definitive proclamation that life is in the future, that it is up to us to continue to be good news. Paul surely got it right in writing to the Philippians: “I give no thought to what lies behind, but push on to what is ahead…life in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3, 13). Love, compassion, humility and selflessness will ultimately triumph over hatred, prejudice greed and death. That’s the message of Easter.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Passion/Palm Sunday – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

A man named Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was coming in from the fields, and they pressed him into service to carry the cross…The centurion who stood guard over him, on seeing the manner of his death, declared: “Clearly, this man was the Son of God!”                            Mark 14, 1 – 15, 47

Compared with the Good Friday reading of John’s account of the Passion of Jesus, Mark’s version is very much understated. The first ten chapters of Mark’s Gospel present Jesus engaging with the crowds and receiving their approval not only for his cures and miracles but also for the manner in which he identified with them as they struggled with the burdens put upon by religious leaders intent on demanding observance of the letter of the Law. Those ten chapters also reveal how Jesus had disagreed with the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee over the narrow ways in which they had interpreted their Jewish Scriptures and traditions. Jesus could not accept the way in which they put rigid and unfeeling adherence to law ahead of human need and well-being. Consequently, as early as chapter three of his Gospel, Mark notes that religious authorities were shaping plans for ending Jesus’ life.

Mark does describe Jesus’ short journey from Bethany to Jerusalem as one during which he received accolades from the crowd, who spread cloaks and reeds in his path. This journey, I suggest, was much more like a protest march than a procession of triumph. When he reached the city gates, he entered Jerusalem alone, not in triumph and quietly went into the Temple and looked around before returning with his disciples to Bethany. It was the next say, according to Mark, that he returned to the Temple and caused a commotion by overturning tables and driving out those who had turned the Temple into a market-place. He looked, pondered, and then acted.

The events that followed the anointing of his feet by an unnamed woman in the house of Simon were not witnessed by adoring crowds. They were largely confined to Jesus and his disciples. It was only Jesus who understood that his journey to Jerusalem was actually a funeral procession. He fully understood that he was a marked man. While his disciples may have shown signs of anxiety, they could not grasp what was about to unfold. They came to understand what eventuated only in retrospect, only after he had been executed and resurrected. We, too, participate in all the events of Jesus psychological struggles in Gethsemane garden, his betrayal and trial, his condemnation, torture and execution, in the knowledge of his resurrection. We know that, despite our betrayals, our desertions and treacheries, his acceptance and forgiveness and love for us has not wavered.

Of note, too, is the fact that, while Jesus celebrated a Passover meal privately with his friends, Mark records no mention of directions to them to repeat the ritual offering of bread and wine among themselves or with anyone else. It was only in retrospect that Mark’s Christian community interpreted this as the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as what we now call Eucharist.

Having noted Mark’s way of understating the events surrounding Jesus’ final days, I invite us all to turn our attention to two seemingly insignificant aspects of Mark’s narrative. – the conscription of Simon of Cyrene to assist Jesus in carrying his cross and the proclamation of the Roman centurion when he saw that Jesus had expired.

We’ve all come to admire people who voluntarily take up a cross by dedicating their professional expertise to the service of those who are less fortunate. They let go of personal advancement simply to benefit others, because that’s what walking in the footsteps of Jesus means to them. One such person is Dr Tom Catena, a 57-year-old physician, surgeon and lay-missionary from New York, who has spent the last 13 years as the only doctor at a 435-bed hospital in the Nuba mountains of South Sudan. There’s a kind of brightness about chosen crosses such as this. Moreover, we often find inspiration in the words and actions of those who choose them. When the local bishop directed all foreign Church workers to leave when their lives were at risk, Tom Catena refused, saying: “The way I saw it was that, if I left, that would tell the people here that my life is more valuable than theirs. And I don’t believe that. That’s not how Christ was, he gave his life for everyone.” (America magazine, August 2018)

But there are other crosses that none of us chooses. They are the kind of cross inflicted by oppressors on ethnic groups like the Rohinga Muslims of Myanmar and the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Province, China. Then there is the baffling cross of the Covid 19 pandemic which has been carried by millions of people across the globe. All these crosses seem to me to make no sense whatsoever. That’s the kind of cross that was forced on Simon of Cyrene, who arrived on the scene of Jesus’ struggle to Calvary at the wrong time. Pressed into helping Jesus who had fallen under the weight of his Cross, Simon had no choice but to give in to the Roman soldiers who were in charge. We don’t even know if he was a religious man going up to Jerusalem for Passover. Mark identifies him as “the father of Rufus and Alexander”, suggesting, perhaps, that this family was known to Mark’s community. Was Simon a reluctant participant or a willing helper? Had he undergone some kind of conversion by the time he got to the end of that ordeal? Did he flee the scene as soon as the soldiers had finished with him? There are times in our lives when we are drawn into the lives of acquaintances, friends, family members and even strangers, and asked or forced to assist them in carrying their crosses of terminal illness, creeping dementia, criminal charges, grief, loss and the like. Reflecting on Simon of Cyrene prods me to ask if I am a reluctant or grumbling participant in the crosses of those around me or whether I walk with them caringly and compassionately. Do I walk with them giving of my time and attention stintingly and grudgingly, feeling sorry for myself at being trapped into doing something unpleasant? Am I afraid of what others may think of me if I fail to give a helping hand? What strikes me about Simon is that he walked with Jesus, and ended up giving the Romans the satisfaction of executing their victim. Those of us with a passion for justice step out to demonstrate in the public eye because of unjust laws, because we believe that black lives matter, that firearms must be banned or that asylum seekers deserve to be welcomed. Yet we know that we may not live to see the change for which we advocate. In the long run, our efforts, like Simon’s, may come to absolutely nothing. What matters, however, is that our personal integrity demands that we embrace the Cross of Jesus whenever it comes into our lives and into the lives of our sisters and brothers. Failure to go that way means that we end up losing our humanity, and as the song of Marist singer Chris Skinner reminds us: “it is human that were meant to be” (Chris Skinner SM, Human).

Whatever the thoughts and feelings Simon experienced, he stands in stark contrast to Jesus, who day in and day out selflessly walks with us as we carry the crosses that come our way – crosses of our own making and crosses given to us by others. Sometimes we let those crosses feed our bitterness, at other times we allow them to transform us, to contribute to our growth and development as human beings, as followers of Christ. In his uplifting sonnet As kingfishers catch fire…,the poet Hopkins offers us words of encouragement and hope, assuring us that we can be Christ to others every day of our lives:

for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

He could just as accurately have stated that Christ’s passion is repeated millions of times each day as his sisters and brothers shoulder crosses of terminal disease, injustice, persecution, prejudice and rejection. We know that we, too, will be numbered among them, that we may even be asked to fill the shoes of Simon of Cyrene. We also have the assurance that Jesus himself will accompany us every step of our journey to resurrection.

A few thoughts, now, on the unnamed Roman centurion who stood at the foot of Jesus on the Cross, and had a hand in his death. It was an American minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church, Kate Braestrup who first prompted me to reflect on the pronouncement attributed to that Roman centurion. Widowed with four children when her husband, a police officer in Maine, USA, was killed in a motor vehicle accident while on duty, Kate gained entry into an Ecumenical Seminary in 1997 and was ordained in 2004. She was motivated by the fact that her husband Drew had thoughts of becoming a minister himself, and the two of them had discussed that possibility at length in the months before he was killed. Kate combined theological study with rearing her young family. A journalist by profession, she has gone on to write books on spirituality, which have attracted the attention of the New York Times. In 2010 she published Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life. In this book, the centurion on Calvary is one of the topics of Braestrup’s reflections.

In today’s gospel reading there are no pyrotechnics associated with the moment of Jesus’ death. Mark observes that, at the moment Jesus died, the curtain in the Temple sanctuary was torn in two and that the centurion who had witnessed the manner of Jesus’ death declared: “Clearly, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15, 39).

The centurion’s words emanated from what he thought and felt as he witnessed Jesus’ agony and death. He concluded that he had been involved in the death of an innocent man. Somehow or other he was touched by the grace of God, not because of who he was, but because of who God is – endless love, hope, compassion and mercy for all of humanity. While we reflect on what happened to the centurion, there is an invitation to us, as we walk down from that hill of Calvary, to ask ourselves what we might do for the broken world of which we are a part. God’s hope is surely that we will live differently because of what Jesus has done for us? Might that mean being a little more sensitive to those around us, making ourselves available to help them to carry their crosses, reaching out in forgiveness and tolerance to those who have hurt us, speaking the truth with courage, compassion, integrity and love? There is a rich abundance of material for reflection in the passion narratives of all four Gospels. But we all need to give ourselves time and space to do the reflecting.

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fifth Sunday in Lent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Some Greeks approached Philip: “Sir, we want to see Jesus. Can you help us?” Philip went and told Andrew. Andrew and Philip together went and told Jesus. Jesus replied: “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground and dies, it is nothing more than a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”    John 12, 20-33

 

We know enough about John’s Gospel to appreciate that its author doesn’t use words idly or waste them. So why does today’s gospel-reading open with some visiting Greeks approaching a disciple with a Greek name to seek the favour of a privileged introduction to Jesus? They choose a ploy that has been used since Adam was a boy: “If we can find a one-talk, he’ll use his influence to get us in the side door. We’ll be able to skip the line.” There’s probably some truth in that. However, I suggest there is more to it, and the clue lies in Jesus’ response to Andrew and Philip: “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless the grain of wheat is buried in the ground and dies…”.

One wonders why the Greek visitors wanted an introduction to Jesus. Perhaps it was out of curiosity. Perhaps they had heard of his reputation for curing the sick and infirm. Maybe, they had seen evidence of the impact on ordinary people of his wisdom and teaching. But the response Jesus gave to the overtures made by the Greeks and the request put to him on their behalf by Andrew and Philip made it clear that he was not interested in fame and had no desire to be put up on a pedestal. Rather, his words were a veiled pointer to a future when he would be put up on a cross.

The Greeks reflect to us something of ourselves. We can all recall times of prayer, reflection and bursts of enthusiasm when we wanted to get close to the person of Jesus, to know him better, to walk in his footsteps. We can all remember echoing, in one way or another, the words of those Greeks: “We wish to see Jesus.” But, perhaps our enthusiasm and desire faltered when we actually came to see Jesus in his true colours. – one who expects of us honesty, compassion, generosity, selflessness, integrity, fidelity and the like. Maybe we baulked when we saw a Jesus who was troubled at the prospect of torture and execution, who felt like abandoning his mission because of the personal cost involved, and who, as today’s second reading from Hebrews tells us, “cried out in pain and wept in sorrow as he offered up priestly prayers to God” (Hebrews 5, 7).

It’s not uncommon to find the words “We wish to see Jesus” inscribed on the inside of Church pulpits as a reminder to homilists that they have a serious responsibility to reflect in their words and actions to the people in front of them something of the person and message of Jesus.

On the inside of the pulpit of St Michael’s Uniting Church in Collins Street Melbourne, one can see inscribed the words “We wish to see Jesus”.  A story is told of a minister who was invited to preach there one Sunday morning. When he stepped into the pulpit and was confronted with those words, he responded immediately with: “Oh, sorry, I’m not Jesus; I’m not even the apostle Andrew!” With that, he went and sat in the front pew and folded his arms. It took some minutes for members of the congregation to convince the visitor that they still wanted him to deliver his homily. However, he did not return to the pulpit. Instead, he took his place behind a simple lectern.

All of us Christians, worthy of the name, have a responsibility to reflect, in our words and actions to one another and to everyone we encounter, something of the person and the Gospel of Jesus. Many of us are surely familiar with one of the dismissal prayers proclaimed to us by the priest at the conclusion of Mass: “Go now, in peace, glorifying God by your life.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated as he stood at the altar after giving a homily on today’s gospel reading. As late as three years before his death, Romero had been described as “a quiet, pious, conservative cleric” who was unable to challenge the injustices being pursued by the government of his country, El Salvador. One of Romero’s biographers, the Catholic peace activist, John Dear described him in these words: “As Bishop, he sided with the greedy landlords, important power-brokers and violent death squads.” However, Romero experienced a profound conversion of heart when a priest friend, Rutilio Grande, who was working among the poor, was executed by agents of the Salvadoran government. Deep within, Romero heard the voice of God urging him to speak out: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” He later described his conversion as “a development of the same desire I have always had to be faithful to what God asks of me.” (Celeste Kennel-Shank, “Oscar Romero’s Grain of Wheat”, The Christian Century, March 2015)

Benedictine tradition and spirituality are rich in insights for living and keeping in touch with God, with Jesus. In their monastery in Monte Casino, Italy, is a fresco that depicts the virtue of obedience as a listening ear. Indeed, the very word “obedience” is derived from the Latin verb obaudire meaning “to listen”.

Today’s reading from Hebrews states that Jesus learned trusting obedience to God by listening deeply to his own suffering, discovering its meaning and being courageous enough to follow the path along which it was leading, ‘just as we do. Then, having arrived at the full stature of his maturity…he became the source of eternal salvation to all who believingly obey him” (Hebrews 5, 8-10). Romero, too, learned obedience to follow the path along which Jesus was inviting him. Knowing what had happened to his friend for accompanying the poor, Romero could have become more fearful, more intent on saving his own life. Instead, he chose to allow God to keep shaping him into the person he dreamed of becoming, and knew, deep down, that God was inviting him to become. In his final homily, Romero had said: “One must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us. Those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives. Those who, out of love for Christ, give themselves to the service of others will live (and die?) like the grain of wheat.”
Let’s leave the last word to the prophet Micah: “This is what God asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6, 8).

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fourth Sunday in Lent – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. Jesus came to help, to put the world right again.” John 3, 14-16, 19-23

Today’s gospel-reading contains a generous sample of the opposing contrasts that John uses throughout his Gospel. – light and darkness, truth and falsehood, doubt and belief. Had our reading included the first part of chapter 3 of John, we might have ended up as confused as poor Nicodemus, who simply could not grasp what Jesus was talking about. He even went as far as asking Jesus to explain himself: “What do you mean? How can a grown man be born again? What do you mean by this ‘born-from-above’ talk?” (John 3, 4) Jesus and Nicodemus are on different wave-lengths. It’s important, however, to note that John introduced his audience to Nicodemus as “a leading Jew who had come to Jesus by night” – under the cover of darkness so as not to be seen by his colleagues, and out of the darkness of ignorance.

In digging into this gospel-reading, we have to bear with the symbolism that John uses. For many people, darkness is or has been something to fear – the darkness of the unknown, the darkness of ignorance and secrecy (illustrated by remarks like “The politicians have kept us in the dark!”), the darkness which hides real or imaginary dangers. We can all probably recall childhood memories of being afraid of the dark. There was a time, for instance, when there was no such thing as indoor toilets and, afraid of the bogeyman or some other beast lying in wait to grab us, we would dash to the outhouse and lock ourselves in.

The American poet, Kenneth Patchen wrote a poem about the terrors of the dark called All the Roary Night in which he writes: “All around us, the footprints of the beast…of something above, something that doesn’t know we exist.” (Selected Poems of Kenneth Patchen, A New Directions Paperback, N.Y., 1936) Patchen’s poem might well be relevant to us in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Many of us were afraid of Covid 19 until it was explained. Now, there are some among us whose remarks about the risk of the various vaccines are elevating the fear levels of many in the community. Somehow or other, the fear of potential terror and disaster comes to gnaw away at the human psyche. Today’s readings combine to reassure us that we have a God whose relentless love reaches out to all of us human beings who are lost in the darkness of fear, doubt, uncertainty and ignorance. Today’s gospel-reading proclaims that God’s love for the world is personified in Jesus who came to be one of us as our brother. But that won’t chase Covid away.

Today’s first reading from Chronicles makes reference to a different pandemic. – a pandemic of evil which has not only infected the minds and hearts of the Jewish priests and leaders, but which has filtered down to the people themselves, who have adopted the abominations of their pagan neighbours. Yet, despite their sinful history, despite the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem and the consequent deportation of the Chosen people into exile, God did not give up on them. Moreover, God chose the most unlikely rescuer for these people in the person of Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia: “From Cyrus king of Persia a proclamation: “God, the God of the heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has also assigned me to build a Temple of worship at Jerusalem, in Judah. All who belong to God’s people are urged to return. – and may your God be with you! Move forward!” (Chronicles 36, 23). God can and does work in surprising and unexpected ways.

In the second reading from Ephesians, Paul launches into a flight of high emotion, describing himself, his community in Ephesus, and, indeed, all of humanity as “God’s work of art(Ephesians 2, 9). In making that enthusiastic and confident claim, Paul emphasises that this is the gift of God’s measureless love and mercy, not something that we could ever earn. God loves us and all of creation unconditionally. Therein lies an invitation to us to stop, take in and appreciate all the rest of God’s works of art with whom we live and work, and the created world that surrounds us.

In the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus (from which Nicodemus disappears without explanation), Jesus refers obliquely to his forthcoming death by crucifixion: “the Son of man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert” (John 3, 14). In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes two other references to being lifted up (on the Cross). In speaking to the Jews he says: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He” (one with God the Father, the Christ of God – John 8, 28). The third is recorded in John 12, 32: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.”

In making these statements, Jesus is encouraging anyone who will hear him to come to appreciate that his death on the Cross will be the ultimate expression of God’s love for the world. In his self-offering Jesus reveals God’s relentless love for humanity. Despite the fact that humanity, down through the centuries, has turned its back on God’s love, God does not stop offering it. Maybe, we will come eventually to realise what God is offering us, and come to accept it.

In alluding to the Exodus story of Moses being directed by God to fashion a bronze serpent for the people to gaze upon after they had been bitten by venomous snakes, Jesus was making the point that we humans only come to understand evil (symbolised by the bronze serpent) when we take time to look it in the face, reflect on it, and take steps to expel it from our lives, individually and collectively. By looking at the Cross of Jesus, we can come to comprehend the evil that put him there but also come to appreciate the immensity of his love for humanity that allowed him to let his executioners have their way.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life” is a statement that has captured the attention of countless Christians and given them hope. However, it has to be considered in the context of what Jesus had shared with Nicodemus both before and after he made that statement. In that long conversation, Jesus makes reference to darkness and light, judgement and salvation, death and life, doubt and belief, but these are not simply insulated opposites. They ebb and flow in and out of one another. We all have experiences of doubt and belief, of light and darkness and so on. Nicodemus, despite being educated, respected and comfortable, didn’t have all the answers. He needed to be exposed to Jesus’ bewildering talk. So do we. And isn’t it appropriate that, after talking about a world that struggled with light and darkness, Jesus sent his disciples out into that world where they encountered the Samaritan woman. Isn’t that a clear indication that God’s love is for the whole world, without exception? But we have to welcome and embrace that love.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Third Sunday in Lent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus made a whip of cords and drove sheep and oxen alike out of the temple area, and knocked over the money changers’ tables, spilling their coins. He said to those selling doves: “Get them out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” John 2, 13-25

I trust that, for most of us, this Sunday’s gospel-reading will be a source of consolation. We all know just how powerful anger can be, especially when our anger gets the better of us and we direct it with great hostility at somebody or something that has upset us. We also know that we can misdirect our angry feelings and slam a door or make a hostile remark to the first person we encounter. Anger, however, is just one of a whole range of emotions. It has attracted a bad reputation because of the ways in which we human beings misdirect it. We can use it destructively to cause others grief and pain. But it can also bring out the best in us when we make the effort to use it constructively. In today’s gospel-reading, we encounter a Jesus who is uncharacteristically angry. Moreover, he does direct his anger at vendors and money-changers who have developed the practice of profiteering on the trust of well-intentioned pilgrims who have come to offer sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. He channels his righteous anger into taking vigorous action in order to restore the temple to what it was meant to be: a place of prayer and sacrifice for everyone who came into it. Undoubtedly, those who were the target of Jesus’ rampage would have been quick to cry foul or to protest that what they were doing was accepted practice. John noted that Jesus’ disciples tried to justify what Jesus had done by attributing it to his religious zeal – the kind of action a prophet would take. Their words echo a verse of Psalm 69 with which they would have been familiar: “I have become an outcast to my brothers…because zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me” (Psalm 69, 9-10). Those watching from the sidelines, demanded that Jesus explain where he got the authority to act as he had done. But Jesus did not give them the satisfaction of an explanation. Instead, he diverted their attention by tossing out an enigmatic statement for them to puzzle over: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

It was at this point in the story that John shifted from his role of story-teller to interpreter. With the benefit of hindsight, having witnessed the execution and the resurrection of Jesus, John inserted a categorical, unqualified interpretation of Jesus’ puzzling remark: “Actually, he was talking about the temple of his body. Only after Jesus had been raised from the dead did his disciples recall that he had said this, and come to believe the Scripture and the word he had spoken” (John 2, 21-22). Implicit in this rider to his story, is an invitation from the Gospel writer to engage with the text to make meaning of it for ourselves. Indeed, I suggest that we only make sense of readings from the Bible, and from any other source, to the extent that we engage with the text.

But let’s focus a little more on the anger that drove Jesus to create uproar in the temple precinct. He was so angry with the commercialisation being forced on well-intentioned pilgrims that he took drastic action, thereby forcing those involved and those who were mere bystanders to open their eyes to the hypocrisy of what was going on. This physical intervention by Jesus was an expression of the anger he felt at the way in which religious worship was being used as a business venture by sharp merchants.
This story constitutes an invitation to each of us to pause and reflect on what it is that makes us angry enough to want to change ourselves, our Church and the injustices that pertain in that part of the world to which we belong.

Today’s gospel-reading, I suggest, contains a double challenge for us. One picks up Lent’s focus on conversion of mind and heart: Are we angry enough with ourselves to do something towards changing our rigid, unhealthy attitudes, our harmful prejudices – racial, political, societal – so that we grow to be more compassionate, more understanding of others, more tolerant? The second challenge relates to the criticisms we sometimes have of our Church. Are we angry enough with some aspects of our Church to risk engaging in dialogue with our parish and diocesan leaders? Walking away in protest or disgust at the sins of the past or present achieves nothing productive and is more likely to cultivate bitterness.

Pope Francis has been courageous in speaking the truth in love to the Vatican Curia (cardinals, bishops, priests and lay leaders working in the Vatican). In his address to the Roman Curia & the Body of Christ (that’s us!) in December 2014, he spoke of the spiritual diseases that he detected in Church members within and beyond the Vatican. Immediately in front of him were all the cardinals and bishops of the Vatican. These are some of the “diseases” he urged them to address within and among themselves: mental and spiritual petrification, gossip, grumbling, back-biting, living double lives, idolising superiors to win favours, wearing lugubrious faces, forming closed cliques. He concluded his address, which is still accessible on the Vatican website (www.vatican.va), with the following: “These are diseases that can affect every curia, community, congregation, parish and church movement. They can strike at individual and communal levels” (Pope Francis, Address to the Roman Curia & Body of Christ, December 22, 2014).

Pope Francis has been intent on overturning metaphorical temple-tables that have found their way into the Church. For example, there is an edge of detectable anger in his response to a question from a Jesuit about avoiding clericalism in the process of formation for priestly ministry: “Clericalism is a real perversion in the Church. The shepherd has the ability to go in front of the flock to show the way, stay in the middle of the flock to see what happens within, and also be at the rear of the flock to make sure no one is left behind. Clericalism, on the other hand, demands that the shepherd always stays ahead, sets a course, and punishes with excommunication those who stray from the flock. In short, the very opposite of what Jesus did. Clericalism condemns, separates, beats and despises the people of God…Clericalism has a direct consequence in rigidity. Have you never seen young priests all stiff in black cassocks, and hats in the shape of the planet Saturn on their heads? Behind all the rigid clericalism there are serious problems…One dimension of clericalism is the exclusive moral fixation on the sixth commandment. We focus on sex and then do not give weight to social injustice, slander, gossip and lies. The Church today needs a profound conversion in this area.” (Pope Francis at a meeting with Jesuits in Mozambique, 5th September 2019)

These comments echo his words to leaders of religious orders in 2013, when he cautioned them about ensuring the health of the seminary formation they provided: “Seminary formation must be a work of art, not a police action where seminarians grit their teeth, try not to make mistakes, follow the rules smiling a lot, just waiting for the day when they are told: ‘Good, you have finished formation.’…Formation must form their hearts. Otherwise, we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mould the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps.” (Pope Francis, Address to 120 superiors of religious orders, Rome, 29th November 2013)

The Pope’s reference to our being fixated on the sixth commandment is a good segue into a brief reflection on today’s first reading from Exodus which lists the Ten Commandments, a code for living which God gave to the Chosen People to breathe life into the way in which they might relate to God and to one another. The Ten Commandments and codes of conduct for those who practice professions or work with people are meant to breathe freedom and energy into those for whom they are formulated. Such codes are not intended to restrict or stifle the conduct of those for whom they are designed. They articulate the behavioural standards expected of those to whom they apply so that they preserve their own dignity and the human dignity of all those with whom they live, work and engage. (cf Foreword of Integrity in Ministry: A Document of Principles and Standards for Catholic Clergy & Religious in Australia)

The Ten Commandments set out for us the parameters within which to live ourselves in the freedom of the children of God. They guide us towards understanding what it means to respect our own dignity and the dignity of everyone with whom we engage, acutely aware of the fact that we and they are temples within whom God’s Spirit abides.

The vendors in the temple whose tables Jesus overturned might have argued that what they were doing was legitimised by custom, practice and the approval of religious leaders. Vatican II pointed to the fact that God’s Spirit needed to be allowed to breathe new life into a Church that had in many ways lost its way and its connection with those for whom Jesus came. Custom and tradition are valuable to the extent to which they preserve and promote the Gospel of Jesus. I therefore conclude with a quote from a fairly unlikely source and a prayer from an African American church:

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.” Gustav Mahler

And the prayer: “Jesus, we fear that to allow for anger is to become less like you. Let us meet the God of the prophets. For you tell the truth. You hold fury at injustice. You, in embodied anger, flipped the temple tables. Would you please help us to become faithful discerners of when to calm and when to rouse? Rejecting that anger that leads to bitterness or hatred of another, yet tapping into a righteous rage when that which you’ve created is under abuse and neglect. The dignity of creation demands our emotions. Make ours a beautiful rage.” (Cole Arthur Riley, @blackliturgies, 29th July, 2020)

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Second Sunday in Lent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow in my footsteps.” Mark 8, 31-38
Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, whiter than the work of any bleacher could make them.   Mark 9, 2-10

This second Sunday of Lent presents me with a challenge, simply because some readers of this weekly reflection will hear a gospel-reading from the end of Mark Ch. 8 and others will hear Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus from the start of Mark Ch. 9. I will try to touch on both gospel-readings, and will include some comments on today’s first reading from Genesis – the story of Abraham & God

The Cross casts a shadow over everyone’s life. A mixture of anticipated and unexpected concerns, griefs, betrayals and the like cause us pain and anguish and even drive us to distraction, desperation and self-pity. We refer to them as our crosses. While we long for the time when we can be relieved of these crosses, we learn, with the benefit of hindsight, that underneath many of our crosses lie opportunities for hope, healing and resurrection. Jesus recognised the potential of life’s burdens for new life and freedom, and urged those who would be his disciples to embrace their crosses as the way into new life for themselves and for others. We have to trust that God will somehow help us to find the strength to cope with the people and events that burden us and to find ways to make our way through whatever troubles us. Then, we will emerge not only uplifted ourselves, but will have the ability to listen to and console others in their time of need and a capacity to lead, encourage and lift them up.

We hear of tragedies on our roads almost every day. Some years ago, a ten-year-old boy lost his left arm when the car driven by his father was swiped by a passing truck, left the road and ended upside down in a ditch. All escaped with minor injuries except for the young lad. Once he became mobile again, he took up judo lessons. His teacher or sensei was an elderly Japanese master. Under his tuition, the youngster did extremely well, but was puzzled because, after three months, he had been taught only one move. Finally, he asked: “Sensei, shouldn’t I be learning more moves?” “This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know”, answered the master. Not fully understanding, but trusting his teacher, the youngster persevered with his training and worked at mastering that one move.

A few months later, the sensei entered the lad in his first tournament. To his own surprise, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third was more of a challenge, until his opponent lost patience and charged. The boy deftly used his one move and won. He now found himself in the finals. But this time, his opponent was bigger, stronger and more experienced. It seemed that the boy was unevenly matched. At least, the referee thought so, and feared the youngster would get hurt. The referee called a time-out and was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened: “No, let them continue,” he insisted. Shortly after the resumption, the boy’s opponent made a critical mistake in dropping his guard. The youngster seized his opportunity, using his one and only move to pin his opponent, winning the match and the tournament. On their way home, the boy and his sensei reviewed all of their matches. Finally, the boy found the courage to ask what was really on his mind: “Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?”
“You won for two reasons” the master replied. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult moves in all of judo. And second, the only known defence for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”

The account of the Transfiguration of Jesus convinces me of the writer’s skill as a dramatist. To give his audience a feel for the drama and intensity of the revelation that is to come, Mark first whets their appetite with the very first sentence of chapter 9, in which he quotes Jesus: “I assure you, among those standing here there are some who will not taste death until they see the reign of God established in power” (Mark 9, 1). Then he launches into how, just six days later, Peter, James and John were led by Jesus up a high mountain, where they experienced something of the majesty and power of God emanating from Jesus himself. But, it was not an earthly power of triumph, military and political strength, or luxury and wealth, but a spiritual power that would free people from fear, alienation and emotional servitude. In order to highlight the significance of the revelation which Peter, James and John were privileged to experience, Mark puts in place the dramatic props that were milestones in the history of the Jewish people. He includes the pivotal mountain-top experiences of ancestors for whom they had great reverence – Moses and Elijah – and crowns the awesomeness of the experience with the advent of a cloud, from which came the voice of God, repeating the message heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him” (Mark 9, 4 & 9, 7).

Peter, James and John, as well as every Jew in Mark’s community (well over 70 years later) would have been familiar with the mountain-top experiences of Moses and Elijah. Elijah, we remember, had spent forty days in hiding on a mountaintop, in anticipation of a dramatic revelation from God. However, God was not revealed to Elijah in the violent storm or the fierce wind or the earthquake he experienced, but in a gentle breeze. The Transfiguration account recalls how Moses, too, went to the mountain of God to receive the commandments, the code for living that would guide the wandering people in their relationships with God and with one another. Moreover, we are told Moses emerged radiant from the mountain cloud that had kept him hidden from those awaiting his return.

The Transfiguration is the all-but-final chapter of the story of God’s love for humanity. The First or Old Testament traces that story, and God’s interactions with Abraham, Moses and Elijah were high points along the way. The birth, ministry, death and resurrection were the final chapter and climax of the saga of God’s love for humankind. The Transfiguration of Jesus was the moment of revelation to Peter, James and John of the divine dwelling deep within Jesus. It was a revelation of the goodness and love of God alive in him and reaching out to the world. Overcome with awe at what they witnessed, the three disciples were left stunned. Peter, however, grapples with how to deal with it and blurts out: “Let’s build a tryptic shaped monument to capture something of the experience.” Our modern equivalent would be: “Let’s see if we can capture it on youtube!”

Like it or not, something of God’s goodness and love dwells deep within each of us. Today’s gospel-reading is an invitation to us to let loose God’s life and love, first within ourselves, and then into our part of the world in the shape of compassion, encouragement, mending broken hearts, actions of mercy and justice. In so doing, we can help others to see and express their capacity for transfiguration.

Finally, we have to deal with the very challenging, and, often, misinterpreted first-reading about Abraham. If the words attributed to God. – “Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you” (Genesis 22, 2). – are meant to be taken literally, then I ask myself if I or anyone would want to believe in a God who asked that of anyone. Obedience to that kind of demand led to the genocide of the Holocaust, to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and, more recently, to the attempted extermination of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Obedience is a virtue only when it serves a cause that is just. Obedience for the sake of an unjust cause is cowardly, slavish and, even, criminal.

I am indebted to the insight of the great Jewish philosopher and theologian, Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) for an understanding of this Abraham story. In his gut-wrenching book, With God in Hell (Sanhédrin Press, N.Y. 1979), Berkovits explored questions like: Why did Jewish people hold on to their faith in God when they were being herded into ghettos across Europe by the German SS? Why did they continue to have their children circumcised as a sign of their covenant with God? Why did they continue to pray in the face of death during their days in Nazi concentration camps? How did they manage to keep blessing God as the Holy One of Israel when it seemed as though that God had abandoned them? Berkovits found his answer in the story of Abraham. It was there that he came to appreciate the unbreakable trust that held Abraham and God together. In trying to describe that trust, he imagined what Abraham might have said to God as he experienced three days of hell on his journey to Moriah to sacrifice Isaac:
In this situation, I don’t understand You. Your behaviour violates our covenant; still, I trust You because it is You and me, because it is us, Almighty God! What You are asking of me is terrible…But I have known You, my God. You have loved me, and I love You. My God, You are breaking your word to me…Yet, I trust You; I trust You.
Berkovits shows just how intimate was the relationship between Abraham and God. In seemingly impossible circumstances, it was God who had blessed Abraham and Sarah with their son, Isaac. And Abraham, struggling with a demand he could not understand, was still able to trust God with the life of the child God had given him. Somehow Abraham came to discover that life and life with God are one and the same. As a consequence, he could not bring himself to choose survival. – his own survival and that of his son. – over life with God. He could not live apart from God.
Other stories in Genesis relate how Abraham’s trust in God had faltered. Remember that, out of fear of being killed if it were discovered that Sarah was his wife, he passed her off as his sister, not once, but twice, thereby allowing her to be taken as a concubine by a foreign king. He put Sarah in that terrible situation because he didn’t have sufficient trust in God.
The message of the Abraham saga is that God has chosen to establish a mutual trust relationship with us human beings. We know that trusting other humans makes us vulnerable. We can be deeply hurt when trust is betrayed. Trusting God can also make us feel vulnerable. Still, God has chosen to relate to us and our world through trust. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus testifies to his trust in God and God’s trust in him, and, by extension, in us his brothers and sisters. Trusting in God can hurt like hell; it can also be bewildering. Jesus assures us that it will eventually take us into the arms of God. Can we put our trust in him?

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

First Sunday in Lent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. Mark 1, 12-15

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews assures us that, because Jesus was fully human, he struggled with the same kind of temptations as we do, and that, as a consequence, we have the consolation of knowing that in Jesus we will find mercy whenever temptation gets the better of us: “It is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin. Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help” (Hebrews 4, 15-15). In his typical, direct and unadorned fashion, Mark, in today’s gospel-reading, states: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mark 1, 12). While Matthew and Luke elaborate on the various temptations Jesus endured, we know from our limited experience that an extended period in the isolation and loneliness of a desert forces us human beings to come face to face with who we are and with our deepest fears. Jesus would have had similar experiences. Moreover, Matthew and Luke tell us enough for us to conclude that Jesus had to deal with the extremely strong urges felt by all human beings – for power, position, possessions, popularity and sexual gratification.

Along with the readings of Ash Wednesday, today’s readings usher us into the season of Lent. We can get trapped easily into thinking that Lent is a time when we are expected to engage in penitential practices that are designed to make us feel miserable because of our human frailty. At least, that’s a message we are sometimes given. Lent is a word that comes from Old English, meaning springtime. It really asks us if we are committed to a life-time of ongoing renewal, if we really believe in lifelong formation and development, if the focus of our lives is on giving ourselves in imitation of Jesus so that others might live with respect and dignity.

As I sat down last week and turned my thoughts to Lent 2021, I dug out of my files an article I came across in the late 1990s. It was written by Barbara Taylor and published in The Christian Century magazine. It traced some of the history of Lent in the Christian churches. When the world didn’t end and Christ’s second coming didn’t occur as St Paul had predicted, Christians began lowering their expectations of God, and, indeed, of themselves. They started hanging wooden crosses in their homes and settling into routine, comfortable living, remembering their once passionate devotion to God in much the same way as they remembered the other enthusiasms of their youth. Gradually, Christians became devoted to their creature comforts: soft couches, flannel sheets, the Sunday leg of lamb roasted with rosemary. These things lulled them into feeling safe and cared for – if not by God, then by themselves. They decided that there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long, it was difficult to distinguish them from the population at large. No longer did they distinguish themselves by their bold love for one another. Nor did they get arrested for championing the poor, the marginalised and the alienated. They just blended in, avoiding extremes and deciding to be nice instead of holy. And God moaned out loud! But then, someone suggested that it was time to reawaken them, and remembered that the Bible offered some clues about how to do that. Noah and his family had patiently endured rain for forty days and forty nights. Israel had spent forty years wandering in the wilderness and learning to trust God. Elijah spent forty days of fear in a cave, before he was able to hear the still, small voice of God on the same mountain as Moses had spent forty days listening to God frame the Law. And Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, during which he endured temptation by the devil. In biblical tradition, forty days represented an extended period, not necessarily an exact number of days.

So now, we, the people of God commit ourselves to the challenge of reflecting on how authentically or otherwise we are living as self-proclaimed disciples of Jesus, of opening our eyes to whatever remains when we let go of many of the comforts to which we have become wedded. We commit ourselves as a Christian community to spending forty days of living more by the grace of God than by what we can provide for ourselves. Daring to sign up for that means letting go of the illusion that we are the ones in total control of our own lives. It means giving our attention to whatever personal spring-cleaning is needed in our lives, and engaging in some serious spiritual renewal. It’s about readjusting the course of our lives.

In her article, Barbara Taylor used the metaphor of the pacifier or dummy parents often use to calm an upset baby. When we venture alone into extended wilderness, retreat or reflective time, we really do come face-to-face with who we are, what we are afraid of and what we depend on. It’s then that we are tempted to reach for whatever we use to pacify and calm ourselves – eating, shopping, working overtime, blaming others, even fussing over others. When those dependencies are taken from us, we have a better chance of discovering what life is like with no comfort other than God. I am reminded of something that happened at an international meeting of my confreres when one of our leaders started to lament that many Brothers were becoming addicted to over-work. When he had concluded his lament, a much younger man rose to his feet and declared: “Everybody in this gathering has at least seven addictions!” He reduced the meeting to silence. Perhaps we might benefit from reflecting on Barbara Taylor’s assertion: “The simple definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty space inside ourselves that belongs to God alone.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Settling for Less, The Christian Century, February 1998, p169-170)

The wilderness for each of us will be different. It doesn’t have to be a secluded, national-park or an isolated retreat house. It can be the quiet of our backyard garden or a room in the house when all the other occupants are away. Still, in the quiet of our reflection space, we can still be tempted: we can hear our inner voice telling us that we’ll go bananas without our pacifiers, that we won’t be our true selves without them or that, since God really loves us, we can do anything we like and skip useless reflections like this one. Alternatively, we can stop and consider if there is something to be gained from taking seriously Lent’s invitation to reflect on the quality of our Christian commitment to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. While that commitment might call for some adjustments to our daily priorities or some relinquishing of the pacifiers on which we depend, it is ultimately about deciding who really is the one to whom we belong. And then, demonstrating that belongingness in the way we live and act and speak. May Lent be for all of us an adventure into renewing our Christian commitment.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

A leper came up to Jesus and, kneeling in front of him, begged him: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him and said: “Of course I want to. Be made clean.”
Mark 1, 40-45

In 1964, the Canadian communication guru, Marshall McLuhan published a ground-breaking book entitled Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw Hill Education, 1964). The book is probably best remembered for McLuhan’s one-liner: “The medium is the message.” He went on to explain that the form of any communication is probably the most significant determiner of how a message is received. For instance, some of us will grasp more easily something that is sung ahead of what we read in a newspaper. We might give greater credibility to what we read in the New York Times than to the polished oratory of a politician’s speech. Twenty-two years earlier, in a speech delivered at an All India Congress Committee meeting, Mahatma Gandhi declared: “In times to come, people will not judge us by the creed we profess, the label we wear or the slogans we shout but by our work, industry, sacrifice, honesty and purity of character.” He proceeded to add: “My life is my message.”

Almost two thousand years before McLuhan and Gandhi, Jesus had proclaimed a message similar to theirs by the way he ministered. In his day and age, there was a prevailing belief that good, decent behaviour earned from God good fortune and a comfortable life-style, and that misfortune, destitution and illness were a consequence of sinful behaviour by the person afflicted or by another family member or ancestor. Jesus countered such narrow-minded attitudes by the manner in which he related to everyone, making sure to treat with dignity and respect everyone he encountered, daring, even, to touch untouchables. – lepers, bleeders and paralytics – who were discarded as social outcasts and sources of contamination. He proclaimed by his actions that he was ushering in a new order of living and relating. – the kingdom of God!

In touching the leper we read about in today’s gospel, Jesus proclaimed in action that nobody is worthy of exclusion, and that treating fellow human beings with compassion, respect and dignity trumped purification laws. However, he did not ride roughshod over the duly appointed priests, whose duties included receiving the stipulated offerings, authenticating cures and admitting those healed to full participation in society. Those very actions placed the priest in the position of having to recognise and acknowledge that the cure of the leper was clear evidence that something new was, indeed, happening.

We might puzzle over the fact that Jesus told the leper he had cured to “say nothing to anyone” about his cure. That direction simply underlines that Jesus was not seeking public adulation and popularity. The fact that the cured man could not contain the news of his cure meant that Jesus and his disciples had to move on. The cured leper, without knowing it, became the medium of Jesus’ message. Jesus’ life and ministry were very rapidly becoming his message. In him the kingdom of God was rapidly becoming a reality. In turn, this gospel reading challenges each of us to reflect on the extent to which our lives reflect the advent of the kingdom of God. Is there anything in my words and actions that excludes or alienates anyone? Who are the “lepers” in my life, those whom I deliberately avoid because they discomfort me, disagree with me or don’t hesitate to challenge me?

About seven years ago, the following story was contributed to The Anglican Digest by the mother of two young boys. It resonates beautifully with today’s gospel:
“When my children were young, our local faith community began a winter ministry to the homeless. Churches in the area took turns offering dinner, shelter and breakfast to the homeless in the area. On my first day of volunteering, I left work early to collect my kids, aged 3 and 6, in the hope of feeding them before going to the church. When I arrived at the day-care centre, 3-year-old Alex was positively beaming: ‘I did it, mum. I stayed down on my mat for the whole of nap time.’ For weeks I had been trying to get him to co-operate with the staff and take the afternoon nap with all the other children. I had tried every trick in the book to no avail. Finally, in desperation, I resorted to the time-tested parenting method of bribery. I promised that if he stayed on his mat for the whole of nap time, I would buy him the pair of green Power Ranger sneakers he had been pestering me for. With the boys safely aboard the car, we set off to buy the sneakers. The first four Walmart and Kmart outlets had every colour but green. At the fifth, we found the prized sneakers. Then it was a rush to the church. We got there just in time to throw the spaghetti sauce into the pan. As I made the sauce, Alex was off displaying his incredibly cool sneakers to the entire kitchen staff and serving crew. When the meal was ready to be served, Alex and Nick went to the far corner of the kitchen to amuse themselves. I was prepared for the typical, addicted, disabled and mentally ill people we picture when we think of homeless people, but I was totally unprepared for the number of families with children who had come for food and shelter. One woman in particular stood out. She and her young son looked neat, clean and absolutely terrified. I asked one of the professionals who administered the program about her. He told me that she had escaped an incredibly abusive situation with only the clothes on her back. All of the nearby women’s shelters were full, so they sent her to us, knowing that with us she and her son would be warm and safe. When she reached the food window, she asked for only one plate, explaining that her son was too frightened to eat. I asked if she thought he would eat if he were allowed to come into the kitchen and have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with my boys. She said she didn’t know, but, since he hadn’t eaten for two days, it would be worth a try. I took young Darius by the hand and led him into the kitchen where he met Alex and Nick. I sat them down and gave each a plate of sandwiches. At ease with youngsters his own size, Darius soon began tucking into the sandwiches. It wasn’t long before he noticed Alex’s green sneakers. After every bite, he would reach out to touch one of the sneakers. ‘Maybe your mom can get you a pair of Power Rangers, too’, Alex volunteered. Young Darius just looked down. As we cleaned up after the meal, Alex was by my side chatting away. ‘He really liked my sneakers’, he said, ‘hope his mum buys him some.’ I quietly explained that that wasn’t likely since Darius and his mom didn’t have any money; that they didn’t have a home. Alex just said: ‘Oh’, and wandered off to play. As we were getting ready to leave, Alex looked up at me and said: ‘Mum, if I give Darius my sneakers, will you carry me to the car?’ Stunned, all I could say was: ‘Of course, but are you sure you want to do this?’ ‘Yeah’, he said, ‘I have lots of stuff, and he doesn’t even have a house, I think Jesus would want me to give him my shoes.’ With that, he slipped them off and skipped over to Darius and gave them to him. As he did, I looked around the kitchen. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The next day, when I returned to the church, I discovered that the woman and her son were not there. So, I asked the coordinator about them. Smiling, he said: ‘It’s all your son’s fault. After you all left last night, the kitchen crew asked me to check out her story. I did, and she’s 100% legit. Apparently, her husband threatened the boy with a gun. She just picked Darius up and ran. This morning, Peter, last night’s dessert man, phoned to say he would like to give her an apartment in one of his buildings, rent-free for six months. He figured that would be enough time for her to get back on her feet. Then Anne called to say she had a job for her. I had no sooner hung up when Nelson called wanting to know if it would help if he paid for Darius to attend our church-sponsored day-care centre for a while. Word has it that she is so overwhelmed that she hasn’t stopped crying yet.’
I cried all the way home. My tiny son had generously given away his treasured shoes to comfort a stranger. His simple act had shown us all what it means to live unselfishly and generously. His small act had so filled the hearts of others that it prompted them to act in similar fashion. The compassion of all of them helped a complete stranger to feel the loving embrace of Christ when she most needed it. To whom will you give your sneakers?” (The Anglican Digest, Winter 2014, p 37-38)

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Immediately upon leaving the synagogue, he entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and the first thing they did was to tell him about her. He went over to her and grasped her hand and helped her up, and the fever left her. She immediately began to wait on them…Rising early the next morning, he went off to a lonely place in the desert; there he was absorbed in prayer. Simon and his companions managed to track him down, and when they found him, they told him: “Everyone is looking for you!”…Jesus replied: “Let us go to the nearby villages so that I may preach there, too. For this purpose I have come.” so he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee. Mark 1, 29-39

Record keepers tell us that the best-selling book of all time is the Bible. It has been translated into almost every known language. The very first English version was translated from Greek and Hebrew by William Tyndale. He completed it in 1635, and a year later was murdered, seemingly for daring to translate the holy text into English. Since then, multiple English translations have been completed, including a translation of Tyndale’s original work. While we all might have our favourite translation, it’s important to remember that every translation is really an opinion, albeit a scholarly one. The challenge for every translator is to get into the mind of the original writer. Sometimes that involves looking closely at the original language used by the writer.

Today’s gospel reading opens with an account of how Simon and Andrew invited Jesus and his small group into their family home. It was the end of a hectic day, so they were probably looking forward to a breather and a meal. They soon discovered that Simon’s mother-in-law (we’ll call her Enid for convenience) was sick in bed. Without so much as a “How do you do? or “It’s good to meet you”, Jesus sprang into action, taking Enid firmly by the hand and lifting her up out of bed – cured. And Enid, in turn, set about extending typical Jewish hospitality to her guests. There have been some who have been quick to interpret this event as an attempt by Mark to reinforce the message that a woman’s proper place is in the kitchen, waiting on the males in the extended family. I suggest that a close look at the original language used by Mark is important for a proper understanding of this particular event.

The original Greek word used by Mark to describe what Enid did was diakoneo, which meant to serve, to attend to or to minister. Clearly, diakoneo is the origin of our word deacon. Scripture scholars suggest that Mark used this story as a way of introducing his community to the notion of service to the wider community, a way of translating the Gospel of Jesus into action. Those same scholars underline their interpretation by pointing to the fact that, in the whole of Mark’s Gospel, the word diakoneo is used on only two other occasions. – when Jesus himself described his own mission and that of his followers as one of service: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, and, when people get a little power, how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve (diakoneo), not to be served…” (Mark 10, 42-45). The third occasion on which Mark used this word for serving was when he used it in reference to the women who stood faithfully at the foot of Jesus on the cross, stating that “When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed Jesus and attended to his needs” (Mark 15, 41). Whatever words were exchanged between Jesus and Enid on the occasion of his visit to her house, Mark made the point that Enid was quick to respond to Jesus’ invitation to be like him – a servant to a world in need. If we are to participate in today’s gospel-reading, it is important we appreciate that the same invitation into service of our world in need is being extended to us, too.

While we are all familiar with the story of Job and the events that led to his losing everything he had, today’s first reading gives us a brief insight into his evaluation of the troubles and misery that can touch the life of every human being, from those who have everything to those who have nothing: “Human life is a struggle, isn’t it? It’s a life-sentence to hard labour” (Job 7, 1-2). Job’s situation is merely an example of the human hardship and struggle that Jesus came into our world to address.
In today’s second reading from Corinthians, we hear Paul talking in an unusual way about how he feels compelled to engage in a ministry of service: “Woe to me if I don’t preach the Gospel!” Woe is an Old-Testament word levelled by prophets against leaders who put self-interest ahead of service to those for whom they were appointed to care (cf Ezekiel 34,2 & Jeremiah 23,1). Jesus himself directed the same threat at the scribes and Pharisees: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matthew 23, 13-14). In today’s reading from Corinthians, Paul is clearly stating that he had been so captivated by Jesus and his Gospel that he would be lacking in personal integrity if he failed to involve himself in teaching, preaching and service, as Jesus did. To what extent have we allowed Jesus and his Gospel to impact on us?

Finally, Mark pointed to Jesus’ need to find time and space for prayer and reflection to sustain him through the intensity of his ministering to others. Deep down, we know that we, too, have a need for that kind of sustenance as we reach out in service to others. We also know that there are times when we fail to allocate time for personal prayer and reflection. Professor Rachel Remen, a world leader in highlighting personal spirituality as a vital factor for cancer patients in their own restoration to health, tells the story of a woman who had spent decades of her life struggling with feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction with her professional life. Unconsciously, she had tried to fill the void by amassing all kinds of collectibles – works of art, expensive books and magazines, pottery and precious stones. When she became ill and had to undergo surgery for an invasive cancer, one of the few things she took with her to hospital was a bathrobe. In the days following her surgery, she would put on the bathrobe and sit on the veranda of her hospital room. In time, she began to find comfort in its softness, to appreciate its beautiful colour and the warmth it provided, and to enjoy the way it clung to her body. One day, she confided in Dr. Remen: “Yesterday, as I was putting on my bathrobe, I experienced an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I know it sounds funny, but I felt so fortunate just to have it. The odd part is that it isn’t new. I realised that I hadn’t really noticed it before, probably because it was just one of five bathrobes in my cupboard.” Rachel Remen remarks that there is a vast difference between having and experiencing. Like Jesus, we all need a “deserted place” where we can connect with God and the things of the heart. It may be a daily, set time for prayer, a gentle walk in a park, a quiet corner of the back-yard or even a bathrobe – whatever keeps us aware of God’s presence in our life, and energises us to reach out in service to others.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection