Gay Walsh

Trinity Sunday – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now…the Spirit of truth will guide you to all truth.” John 16, 12-15

Even though the celebration of God as Trinity did not appear anywhere in the Church until the 8th century when it was initiated by the French and was not integrated into the universal Church-calendar until 1334, theologians across nearly nineteen centuries have spent an incalculable amount of ink on articles, treatises and books grappling with the notion of the Holy Trinity. While the theologians have given us insights into God worthy of our attention and reflection, we know that the God in whom we place our faith and trust will always be a mystery. Still, some have described Trinity Sunday as the hinge that joins the two halves of the Church year. The first half shines the light on the life of Christ while the second focuses on the life of the Church as the Christian community.

While today’s scripture readings are offered to provide support for the concept of God as Trinity, the word Trinity is not to be found in the Scriptures. In fact, today is the only day of the year on which we are invited to reflect on a Church teaching rather than on a teaching of Jesus.

While God is a mystery who will never be depthed, we have grown to appreciate that God is someone to be encountered through a personal relationship that grows out of faith. However, growth in faith, does not happen by magic. In fact, in today’s gospel-reading, Jesus alludes to its slow progress in his close disciples: “I still have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now” (John 15, 12). Even though he said this on his last night with them, the issue was not related to his running out of time. The problem was with the disciples, who were short on intellectual comprehension. The truth that Jesus wanted them to know would have to be learned through painful and joyful experience – that of living through his passion, death and rejoicing in his resurrection. Even the Last Supper experience of having him wash their feet and being told that he was going to an experience into which they could not follow him, would not complete their education. In their time with Jesus, the disciples had seen incredible signs that demonstrated he was indeed the Messiah, they still needed more than convincing proof. They needed to be led into the truth by an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Moreover, that was an assurance that Jesus gave them when he told them that the Holy Spirit would guide them to the truth through a felt encounter. Jesus had already asserted that everything he had taught his disciples had been revealed to him by the Father. Everything the Spirit inspired had come by way of revelation from the Father. It follows logically that all knowledge of God given to the disciples ,and consequently to us, is inspired by the Trinity.

As we engage with today’s gospel-reading from John, it’s important to remember that John was writing for a community that had not known Jesus in the flesh. What’s more, it was a community that was dealing with violent persecution. John realised that the Spirit, the Advocate promised by Jesus, was the one who would continue to reveal something of God to Christians who were being oppressed, and that God’s Spirit would continue to breathe something of God’s love, hope and compassion to Christian communities down through the ages as they tried to give practical expression to what they had already learned about Jesus’ teachings and respond to the challenges that emanated from those teachings.

It is the same Holy Spirit who assures us of God’s guiding and loving presence as we deal with the issues that confront us and our world right now; as we deal with the impact of the Covid pandemic, with the natural disasters of fire, flood and earthquake, with the war in the Ukraine, with religion-based conflicts in various parts of Africa, with the tensions around rights to possess and use firearms, with the debates linked to climate change and use of fossil fuels. As a consequence, we are becoming increasingly aware of our need to open ourselves to the many things that Jesus still has to say to us 21st century disciples. That implies our being ready to be touched by the promptings of God’s Spirit.

As we have grown into an adult faith, we have come to appreciate the multiple dimensions of God’s self-revelation to us. We are conscious of God, creator and sustainer of all life and all creation; we know Jesus, the Christ of God, who, in becoming one of us, demonstrated the depth and breadth of God’s love for all humanity; we are aware of God’s Spirit of love present in the depths of our being, prompting us to reach out in love to everyone we encounter, The “truth” to which John refers in today’s gospel-reading is his insight into the fact that God’s self-revelation goes on forever. God’s Spirit dwelling within each of us and in the community of God’s people continues to guide us into an ever deeper understanding and appreciation of all that Jesus taught when he preached and taught and healed during his time on earth. It is our faith in the triune God that inspires us to continue the creative love of God in our world as we reach out in compassion, forgiveness, mercy, kindness and acceptance to everyone we encounter and to our common home, planet earth, crying out for healing.

Echoing the words of St Augustine, scripture scholar Jay Cormier writes: “The gifts we offer one another are sacramental when they manifest the love and mercy of God; they are eucharistic when they transform us into a community bound together by that love.” That’s a fitting segue into next week’s reflection.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Pentecost Sunday – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2, 1-11
Jesus breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit …” John 20, 19-23

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934-2017), the son of the Hungarian Ambassador to Italy, was forced with his parents to seek asylum in Italy when a Communist Government came into power in Hungary in 1949. No longer a career diplomat, his father established a restaurant in Rome and young Mihaly dropped out of school and worked in order to supplement the meagre earnings that came from the restaurant trade. To further ease the financial burdens on the family, Mihaly started to travel through Europe, taking up temporary work wherever he could find it. When he was in Switzerland, out of curiosity he attended a talk by Carl Jung on the psychology at work in people who claimed to have experienced sightings of UFOs. In 1956, Mihaly emigrated to the United States, where he enrolled as a student at The University of Chicago and paid for his fees by working at night. He graduated with a B.A in Psychology in 1959 and went on to gain a PhD in 1965. He researched the psychology underlying happiness and creativity and went on to publish a book entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

In writing about what he called “flow”, Csikszentmihalyi invited his audience to recall moments in their lives when they felt really alive, when what they had their focus on proceeded like clockwork, when their every golf shot put the ball exactly where they wanted it to land, when their work plans fell perfectly into place, when their best efforts turned out to be exactly what was needed. These days we might refer to experiences like that as “being in the groove”. The fascinating thing about being in the flow or in the groove is that it just happens. We don’t make it happen. It comes upon us and carries us along. We are very comfortable in that space and feel satisfied with what we manage to accomplish when we are in it. But it often disappears as quickly and surprisingly as it comes upon us. In recent decades, astrophysicists have told us that there is a similar flow in the ongoing evolution of the universe. Whenever we pay attention to that, we are filled with awe and wonder, and are drawn into reflecting on God’s extraordinary, ongoing creativity. I suggest that the description of the first Pentecost in Acts gives a picture of Jesus’ first disciples caught up in the flow, carried along by their frenetic emotions, communicating with people they hadn’t encountered before, even amazing themselves by the fact that they could speak the languages of those with whom they engaged. We might even wonder if they had suddenly become expert linguists or whether it was a demonstration of the fact that love speaks all languages.

It strikes me that most of us from the western world are cautious when it comes to expressing our emotions, and especially so when we engage in prayer and worship. The churches we have built seem to have been designed to subdue emotion rather than call it out of us. Moreover, many of us have been encouraged to steer clear of emotional outbursts in our churches and to be wary of pentecostalists. We’ve even invented labels for those who express their emotions in worship, calling them names like “happy clappers” who involve themselves in “jumping for Jesus”.

Worthy of note, however, is the fact that in some cultures emotion in worship is encouraged. Jewish people who gather at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem can be seen praying with their whole bodies. In African American church congregations, there is constant exchange between preachers and the people in the pews. There, and across Africa, worshippers dance to the altar with their contributions at the Offertory. Yet, the design of many places of worship invites silence and soberness. There is nothing sentimental about the statuary and design of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is highly classical. Canterbury Cathedral in England, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Notre Dame in Paris and Washington Cathedral in the United States all invite silence and sobriety in speech and dress.

A gravestone inscription in Winchester, England describes how we were taught to keep emotion in check. It marks the burial place of the Countess of Huntington and reads: “She was a just, godly, righteous and sober lady, a firm believer in the Gospel of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and devoid of the taint of enthusiasm.” Complementing this is a story told by the Episcopalian priest, the Rev Samuel Lloyd about an incident at his church in the New England region of the United States: “A visitor had slipped quietly into one of the rear pews and sat quietly until he began his sermon. ‘Amen! Yes, Lord, preach it!’, she yelled. A few minutes later, she called out again: ‘Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus!’ By this, an usher had made his way over to her and asked quietly: ‘Madam, is there something wrong?’ ‘No’, she replied, ‘I’ve just got the Spirit!’. In answer, the usher said sternly: ‘Well, Madam, you certainly didn’t get it here!’”

All this is a lengthy introduction to why I want to suggest Pentecost Sunday is relevant to us. In our Creed every Sunday, we proclaim: “I believe in the Holy Spirit”. Is that any more than a notion or an idea? Does it translate into action? After all, God’s Spirit is alive in the depth of our heart and is active in our world. In Genesis, we read that God’s Spirit brooded over the waters of chaos and stirred it (the chaos) into life. In Exodus, we hear how God’s Spirit led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert and into the Promised Land. Later, when they had lost direction in their lives, it was God’s Spirit who, through the Prophets, called them back to fidelity. In Luke we learn how Jesus was conscious of being filled with the Spirit as he launched into his public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; therefore, he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and release to prisoners…” (Luke 4, 18). God’s Spirit is ever at work in us and in our world, inviting us to connection with one another and with everyone we encounter. If we dare to look at our world, we can only conclude that it is in urgent need of the action of God’s Spirit. Pentecost invites us to be instruments of that action. Modern technology like the internet helps us to connect with one another. Yet, at the same time there is clear evidence of things like a sense of entitlement and a pull towards tribalism that distance us from one another. We are faced with many questions and challenges: Will we ever learn to deal with difference and conflict without resorting to war and destruction? Might we seriously engage the help of God’s Spirit to nudge our so-called Christian Churches to collaborate as one to bring the health, harmony and hope of the Gospel to a world that seems to think it can get along without God? Will we be able to bring ourselves to take the steps needed to restore to health the earth, our fragile home which brought us to life and has continued to sustain us, but which we have violated and neglected? Pentecost proclaims that the Spirit of God has been let loose among us. But we will not tap into that Spirit if we persist in trying to generate all the power and control ourselves. Can we allow the breath of God’s Spirit to blow in and through us?

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Feast of Ascension – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down upon you; then you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth.” No sooner had he said this than he was lifted up before their eyes in a cloud which took him from their sight. Acts 1, 1-11

Just imagine how things might have turned out if those first disciples had been required to undergo a modern-day risk assessment as a pre-condition to their being accepted as witnesses to Jesus’ life and Gospel. Yet, despite the frustrations and disappoints they had caused him, Jesus trusted that, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, these same disciples would measure up, eventually, to the commission which he entrusted to them. Jesus was confident that, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they would find what they needed to stand on their own feet and develop the courage and confidence required to testify to God’s love for the world, the love which permeated all that he had said and done in his life. To prepare themselves for an experience the intensity of which was beyond their wildest imagination, Jesus instructed them to stay together in the city and wait “for the fulfilment of my Father’s promise…for baptism with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 4-5). Prayerful though that waiting period was, they could not have anticipated the manner in which God’s Spirit came upon them and changed their lives forever.

Scripture scholars have repeatedly reminded us that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles were written by the same person. Acts is a sequel to, or the second volume of, Luke’s Gospel. The link between the two is that the Gospel concludes with an account of Jesus’ ascension to the Father and Acts opens with a fuller description of the same event. I suspect that Luke was doing more than reminding his community of the way in which he had concluded his gospel. While he has drawn a parallel between the way in which Jesus prepared for his public ministry and the way in which he went about preparing the disciples for theirs, I suspect he had something else in mind. But first, let’s note the parallel preparations. In his Gospel, Luke tells how Jesus prepared for his ministry of teaching, preaching and healing with a forty-day period of prayer and fasting in the wilderness. In the very first chapter of Acts, he relates how Jesus had spent forty days from the day of his resurrection, reinforcing for his followers the fact that he had really risen and revising with them all he had taught them when they accompanied him in his public ministry.

But why did Luke conclude his gospel with an account of Jesus’ ascension and then give a different account of that event at the beginning of Acts? True, it was a way of linking the two books. I suggest that the story is repeated because it heralds the transition from Jesus’ time to the time of his disciples with the mandate and responsibility to continue what he had initiated. This was the birth of the Christian community, the community to which we now belong and in which we have a role and responsibility. To highlight the need for urgent action, Luke describes how two angels were on hand to call the disciples out of the mix of grief, loss and wonderment that had left them stunned and gazing up into the heavens. In effect, the angels said to the disciples: “Snap out of it! There’s work to be done, and it’s for you to go and do it!” cf Acts 1, 11. Putting it another way, we could say that the final chapter of Luke’s gospel marks the conclusion of Jesus’ mission as the Messiah while the first chapter of Acts ushers in the mission of the community that would keep Jesus present to the world.

If we care to look closely at Luke’s two accounts of Jesus’ ascension, we will discover that there is embedded in them material for our own reflection on loss and death. The account in Acts echoes the story of Elijah’s ascension into heaven described in the Second Book of Kings (2 Kings 2, 1-16). As Elijah waited in anticipation to be taken up to heaven in the whirlwind, his disciple Elisha prayed for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. And when he picked up Elijah’s mantle, he received an overwhelming experience of God’s Spirit. Similarly, Jesus promised his disciples that they would be given God’s Spirit to comfort them. So, when they elected to follow him, metaphorically picking up his mantle, they were blessed with a completely overwhelming experience of God’s Spirit.

There is also here a story of love. Our experiences of the death of people we have known and loved have shown us that absence does not extinguish the love that has grown between us. We have cherished memories of that love to keep nourishing us. And God’s Spirit continues to live in our hearts; God’s Spirit is present in the depths of our being. Embedded in these ascension stories is the Christian attitude to death. They leave us with the knowledge that Jesus has gone from among us. He had spent time convincing his disciples that he had risen from the grave. His ascension was a second rising, not from the grave but from the earth, to his abode in heaven. That he still lives confirms our belief that our departed loved ones are also still alive, and that we, too, will live in a different way following our death.

In his gospel account of Jesus’ ascension, Luke notes that Jesus walked with his disciples “as far as Bethany”. That detail is significant because that’s where his dear friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, and that’s where he raised Lazarus to life – an appropriate place for him to spend his last moments on earth.

Ultimately, the event of Jesus’ ascension is about transition and change. Jesus had spent his life showing us that God’s love for us and our world is limitless and unconditional. He commissioned all who would be his disciples to reflect God’s love to everyone we encounter. To do that, we have to be ever open to growth, to change, to transition as we adapt to meet the ever-changing people we encounter. The words which Jesus directed to his disciples just before he left this earth have also been directed to all of us who have succeeded those disciples. We, too, are called to be witnesses to the love of God for humankind, to bring healing encouragement and compassion to our sisters and brothers whom we will encounter until the day when our turn comes to transition to the life that awaits us beyond the grave.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Sixth Sunday of Easter – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The apostles and leaders, your brothers, send greetings to you, our brothers of Gentile origin in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. We heard that some men from our church went to you and said things that confused and upset you. Mind you, they had no authority from us; we didn’t send them…It seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us that you should not be saddled with any crushing burden but be responsible only for these bare necessities: to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood from the meat of strangled animals, and from illicit sexual unions.” Acts 15, 1-2; 22-29
“…the Father will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.” John 14, 23-29

If we take nothing else from today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have to grasp the reality that the very early Christian community struggled with disagreements around rules for belonging. Moreover, if we stop to reflect on the debate relating to circumcision, we will come to appreciate that Christians over the centuries have divided themselves into different camps in their attitudes towards devotional practices, some moral issues, and even prayers and liturgical practices. In some cases, personal opinions are so strong that, in the minds of those who have held onto them, they are enshrined as tantamount to God’s immutable law. Even in today’s Church, we can see evidence of people dividing themselves into groups that are so diametrically opposed that they see those in the opposite camp as threats, heretics or enemies, rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Those in positions of leadership in the early Church were not always consistent. They demonstrated the same human frailties as some Church leaders do today. Paul, for instance, even though he took the common-sense approach of not requiring adult converts to Christianity to be circumcised, still seemed to agree that it was acceptable to put labels on people from some cultures. In his letter to Titus he approved of the way in which a commentator from Crete labelled his own people: “A man of Crete, one of their own prophets has testified: ‘Cretans have ever been liars, beasts and lazy gluttons’, and that is the simple truth” (Titus 1, 11).

Fifty years after the decrees of the Second Vatican Council were promulgated, there are still Catholics who insist that Mass should still be celebrated in Latin and that one should receive communion only on the tongue, as though one’s tongue is cleaner than one’s hand. Whatever their reasoning, there are some who insist that it is more reverent to receive communion on the tongue while in the kneeling position.

There is, however, no point in labelling one another as conservative, traditionalist or radical because of the opinions we hold or the practices we adopt in our prayer, liturgical celebration or theological stance. We are all sons and daughters of God, and sisters and brothers to one another and to Jesus. It is therefore vital that we treat one another with respect, tolerance and dignity,

Perhaps of more concern is the tendency of equating our beliefs and practices with the will of God. That’s something of which we are all capable whenever we slip into arguing that we have a monopoly on the truth, that what we do and say and believe is absolutely right.

Over centuries, there have been people who have designated themselves as Christian and, at the same time, have done their best to twist the will of God into justification for slavery, declaration of war (calling it a just war), and the assassination of leaders for their political views or their oppression of ethnic minorities.

In today’s gospel-reading, Jesus assures his disciples that God will give them the Spirit of Wisdom and Peace to guide them in bringing justice, compassion, mercy and forgiveness to those around them and to the people among whom they live and to whom they minister. Might it not have been that same Spirit who led the leaders of the early Christian community in Jerusalem to the very practical decision of sparing the Gentile converts in Antioch and elsewhere from the risk and fear that would surely have been linked to adult circumcision?

The words attributed by John to Jesus in his long exhortation at the Last Supper, just before Jesus went to his death, are words of promise, encouragement and hope, intended to stand them in good stead when he was no longer physically present among them. Through his presence among them, he had taught them to love, to be compassionate, to persevere in reaching out to others. After his resurrection, he breathed on them the gift of peace and promised them the gift of the Spirit to sustain them in whatever they had to encounter. We know from our own experience that we can be sustained by the inspiration of people who have guided us in life and are no longer with us. We can find ways of putting into practice whatever it was with which they inspired us. There is a richness of presence in the reality of absence, but, to appreciate it, we need to take time to reflect and ponder.

We know that there have been times in our lives when we have put our human expectations on God, on Jesus. We have wanted, even expected, them to act according to our timing. However, we have long since learned that prayer is not a tool for controlling God, that we can’t control God to act in our timing or in our way. We have an expression in English: “Expectations are a down payment on bitterness”. Whenever we project our expectations onto others, including God and Jesus, we might find ourselves disappointed or full of bitterness and resentment when they don’t comply with what we want or when we want it.

What Jesus says in today’s gospel-reading is his response to the question put to him by Judas, a disciple who is distinguished from Judas Iscariot, a different man altogether. Judas asked Jesus why he (Jesus) was entrusting his friends with his message: “Why is it that you are about to make yourself known to us but not to the world?” (John 14, 22) The answer which Jesus effectively gives him is: “Because a loveless world is a blind world, a deaf world…and this is God’s message not mine…it can only be delivered by those who love me and who love God.” What is fascinating about this is that it amounts to Jesus putting expectations on the disciples, on us who follow in their footsteps. And Jesus is patient enough to wait for us to do that in God’s time, in the Spirit’s time, for as long as it takes us to absorb the expectation which he is putting on us. And he loves us so much that he’s not going to rush us. Eventually it will dawn on us that his Spirit dwells with us, deep in our heart. Then we’ll spring into action.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fifth Sunday of Easter – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”    John 13, 31-35

The two readings from the Book of Revelation offered to us for reflection, last Sunday and this coming one, are an invitation to ponder the fullness of life awaiting us when we die. However, very few of us seem to look forward eagerly to that life which is promised to us. I suspect that’s because we have come to love the joys and satisfactions with which God has blessed us in the creation that surrounds us and in the love we experience in the relationships we have grown into with family and friends. In our better moments, despite interpersonal breakdowns and disappointments, we appreciate that all the good we experience in relationship with one another and with the created world around us is evidence of the immense love God has for us.

Deep down, we know that we are made for love. We believe that we were loved into life by parents whose love for one another, however inadequate, was a reflection of God’s love for us working in and through them. We are aware that it was our mother who probably taught us more about love than anyone else. There were no instructions. Our mothers taught us all about love by being love in action for us. Their love was contagious. In time, we somehow came to realise that God, too, loves us. If we want evidence of that we need only to list the names of the ten or so people whom we regard as having been the most significant influences on our lives. Moreover, we’ve all been around long enough to know that, at some time or another, we all fall in love with somebody, and that we cannot predict who that somebody will be. We know, too, that, if we haven’t been loved, we would by now be dead and buried. So, from one perspective, it is a little surprising to hear Jesus saying: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” After all, loving is not something about which we feel we need directives. Or maybe it is, especially when we encounter people who have little appeal to us.

What then lies behind this directive to us from Jesus: “As I have loved you, so you must/should love one another!”? And why does he describe it as a new commandment?

In order to answer these questions, I suggest a brief theological/scriptural excursion into the meaning of the Lenten period we completed just a few weeks ago. Lent was instituted as a period of preparation for baptism, and concentrated on helping people to understand the covenant relationship God initiated with humankind and sealed in baptism. In making that covenant or agreement with humanity, God reached out to us saying I have loved you into life and created you in my image. I love you and you are mine. God sealed that covenant in the person of Jesus, who lived in our flesh and blood and died on the Cross out of love for us. God’s covenant with us has the shape of an ongoing relationship with us that was formally initiated at our baptism. It has been made with us for the sake of our getting to know who God really is, for bringing us closer to God.

Worthy of note is the fact that one of the readings for the First Sunday of Lent (Cycle B) is the story of the covenant God made with Noah, a covenant which was sealed with the rainbow. Many ancient cultures fashioned flood stories and myths as a way of trying to deal with the fears they created in themselves because of the violence to which they resorted as a way of dealing with human conflict and disagreement. The ancient Mesopotamians, Incas, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and many others fashioned stories of their gods using the destructive violence of floods to wipe out humans’ violence to one other and provide opportunity for a fresh start. Human beings had come to recognise that the violence to which they resorted would eventually be an instrument for wiping themselves out. The violence they repeatedly adopted was like a contagion. The story in Genesis of Noah, the ark and the flood has mythic qualities similar to flood stories in other cultures. The Genesis flood story tells of a God who used a flood as a projection of the age-old human answer to violence: resorting to more and greater violence to wipe out existing violence. The rainbow that appears at the end of the flood story in Genesis is a symbol of the peace that God holds out to humanity. The God who put the rainbow promise of peace in the sky is the God we meet in the person of Jesus Christ. Any god who uses the violence of a flood to wipe out people is a false god, a god created by human cultures to wipe out violence with violence. True, Jesus, in his death on the Cross was a victim of human violence, but God’s response in raising Jesus from the grave demonstrated the impotence of human violence in comparison with God’s life-giving power of love and forgiveness.

When we renewed our baptismal vows at the Easter-Vigil, we identified ourselves with Jesus Christ in death but also in the belief that we, too, will be raised to unending life, the kind of which we cannot even imagine. But let’s not overlook the fact that God’s creative energy is still at work in us and our world. We continue to be formed and shaped and remade as individuals and as a species through God’s faithful and loving relationship with us over time and space. In his teaching, Jesus revealed to us a God who is faithful, loving and totally opposed to violence. Moreover, he told us that we are our best selves when we love as he does, with the kind of love he learned from God.

As we try to live as sisters and brothers to one another in the Christian community we call Church and in the world that is beyond Church, we encounter people with whom we disagree, people to whom we are certainly not attracted. But that’s what God’s covenant with humanity is all about. God, and the Jesus who revealed God to us, reach out to people who are not likeable, to people who, like us, are fragile, weak and sinful. It is only because God embraces imperfect human beings that any of us has a chance to be included in God’s covenant.

Despite all this, we live in a world in which violence proliferates. While God’s creative energy is still at work in our world, we and our world are seemingly unable to let go of wanting to get even with those who hurt us, unable to stop fighting violence with more violence. We can’t stop wanting God’s creative transformation to work at our pace rather than at God’s pace. Jesus called his commandment to love new simply because loving one another, even enemies, was not a priority for the people of his era, and has not been for our world over the last two thousand years. The way of non-violence, of compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness and love is new, simply because we have been unable to embrace it. At a time when world leaders have at their disposal technology and weaponry sufficiently powerful to obliterate us all, the need to imitate the love of Christ is more urgent than ever. Accepting Jesus’ new commandment will come at a price, and will certainly be countercultural.

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fourth Sunday of Easter – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“My sheep hear my voice; I know them; and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” John 10, 27-30

While we are all familiar with the metaphor of Jesus as shepherd and ourselves as his sheep, it is not necessarily a metaphor that sits comfortably with us. After all, sheep are not regarded as the smartest of animals. They easily wander off and are brought into line by dogs snapping at their heels. They have to be led by the nose or pulled into line by the shepherd’s deft use of his crook. Most of us resent being pulled into line or being led by the nose. Yet in today’s gospel-reading, John presents Jesus attributing to himself the metaphor of shepherd. Moreover, it is a metaphor that occurs repeatedly in the Bible. As early as the Book of Genesis, Joseph, in asking God to bless his two sons, was presented as giving praise to God “who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day” (Genesis 48, 15). Psalm 78 refers to God’s shepherding the Israelites as they wandered through the desert: “But his people he led forth like sheep and guided them like a herd in the desert” (Psalm 78, 53). In his Gospel, John makes multiple references to Jesus as both shepherd and sacrificial lamb. Moreover, in an extended metaphor, Ezekiel contrasts God’s faithful caring with so-called shepherd leaders who abandoned their sheep in times of threat and danger: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed of their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured…You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts’ “ (Ezekiel 34, 2-5).

A lot of the language in the Bible consists of image, symbol and metaphor. It impacts on us much like the way in which art and music, poetry and ballet touch us. We would do well to allow ourselves to soak it up rather than try to engage with it via intellectual analysis. I suggest that there is value in calling to mind that, even today, shepherds in Palestine tend only about ten or a dozen sheep. They keep sheep principally for milk and wool, sit with them all day long and, if the weather is really cold, they shelter them in the family home at night. They can distinguish each sheep from the others and almost know them by name. They are the kinds of shepherds and flocks with which Jesus would have been familiar. That’s the sort of image and metaphor that Scripture writers apply to Jesus, and it’s that which we would do well to allow to work on us.

The quality which epitomises Jesus the good shepherd is the care he extends to every member of his flock, without exception, without favour. That care he most clearly demonstrated in his becoming one with us, in the fullness of our humanity. The incarnation means that, instead of leaving us to ourselves, he embraced our flesh and grew into it; in that same flesh he encountered temptation as we do; in flesh like ours, he died in an act of love of the kind that humanity has not seen either before him or since. That act of love extended not only to sheep like us who have tried to follow him, but to every single one who has wandered away from him. Moreover, he doesn’t beat back into place any who wander. Instead, he lays them on his shoulders and brings them to be at home with him.
This same Shepherd knows just how difficult it is for us to make our way along life’s journey as women and men of flesh and blood, of passion and spirit, of intellect, spirit and free will. No matter how we wander and roam, this Shepherd goes out to track us down, cradle us in his arms and bring us safely home on his shoulders. It’s this image of our Shepherd that Biblical writers have woven throughout the Scriptures.

Written into this extended metaphor is an invitation to us to open ourselves to his care and, in our turn, to care for others as he cares for us. Our influence as shepherds will be effective only to the extent that we resemble him, reaching out in care, compassion and love to those crying out for attention. But this is not as easy or as simple as it sounds. To appreciate the full significance of today’s gospel-reading, it is important, yet again, to look at context. Immediately before referring to those who listen to him as his sheep and, therefore, dear to his Father, Jesus was being badgered by his critics to openly declare whether or not he was the Messiah: “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you really are the Messiah, tell us so in plain words” (John 10, 24). At the very end of the section chosen for today’s gospel-reading, Jesus declared that, because he was involved in doing God’s will, “The Father and I are one” (John 10, 30). That was too much for the Jews badgering him, so they took up stones to kill him.

So, attempts to shepherd others in imitation of Jesus, will be bound to bring with them dangers to life and limb. While most of us know that we have been free of persecution on account of the faith we profess, we don’t have to look far for evidence of our sisters and brothers being led like lambs to the slaughter. They, too, are dear to the Good Shepherd as they are devoured by engines of injustice, brutality and war. We have seen them and their children go to their deaths on the waters of the Mediterranean in their efforts to find refuge, asylum and welcome. We are seeing similar brutality repeated in the Ukraine and in the brutality of Boko Haram in Nigeria. We pray that the Good Shepherd and the God with whom he identified will somehow bring an end to such violence. In so praying, we may need to ask ourselves if our actions and protests are as fervent as our prayers.

On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, as we gather for and participate in worship, as we reflect on Jesus as shepherd and as ourselves as dear to him, we will very likely sing a version of Psalm, 23 ‘The Lord is my shepherd…” probably the most memorised text of the entire Bible, after the Lord’s Prayer. Psalm 23 initially looks like an idyllic, pastoral prayer of trust and confidence in God as shepherd. But then comes mention of valleys filled with darkness and the shadows of death. The “sheep” in the psalm trust in God’s providence, but still have eyes wide open to the dangers that they risk as they travel the way of justice and righteousness. Not as trauma-free as we like to think!

Finally, it is worth noting, that as Jesus engaged with the Jews who were badgering him, he was not just explaining his actions, but, at the same time, challenging their approach to leading their people. Their leadership style was directed at bringing benefit to themselves rather than to those they claimed to lead. In modelling a different way of leading and loving, Jesus was challenging them to imagine their lives revolving around something different from that to which they had grown accustomed. Perhaps there’s a similar challenge for us! He did not promise life free of pain, struggle and challenge, but rather his abiding presence through all that kind of experience. That’s something to fill us with hope and trust.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Third Sunday of Easter – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time “Do you love me?” and said to Jesus: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”   John 21, 1-19

The last few verses of chapter 20 of John’s Gospel read as though the writer was bringing his work to an end. In fact, the Jerusalem Bible puts these verses under the heading of Conclusion: “There were many other signs that Jesus worked, and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name” (John 20, 30-31). Chapter 21 is headed Appendix. Scripture scholars tell us that this chapter was added at a later date, for the purpose of correcting the views of some of the members of the early Christian community who had doubts about the physical resurrection of Jesus. They believed that what the disciples saw, when they supposedly encountered the risen Jesus, were hallucinations or figments of their imagination. Chapter 21 presents the risen Jesus lighting a fire and cooking, serving and eating freshly-caught fish.

Today’s gospel-reading puts the focus on Simon Peter, the disciple who, only a few days before, had three times denied having any connection with Jesus. His weakness was underlined by the fact that those who had recognised him as belonging to supporters of Jesus, were hardly threatening. They were a servant-girl and two curious onlookers. They had little or no connection with the people in authority who would be satisfied with nothing but the death of Jesus. We are told that, when Peter realised the gravity of his denials, he went off and wept bitterly. If the risen Jesus had not turned up and intervened, we might not have heard of Peter again.

It is worth noting the context in which the writer of this appended chapter sets the story of Peter’s forgiveness and restoration. Of significance is the fact that Jesus invites the disciples to breakfast around a charcoal fire, the same kind of fire around which Peter was warming himself when he denied Jesus. And echoing the scene of the Last Supper, Jesus broke bread and fish and handed it around to the disciples as they came ashore. It is in this setting that Jesus turns to Peter and asks three times: “Peter, do you love me?” But there was nothing vindictive about the questioning. Jesus was certainly not trying to even the score by rubbing Peter’s nose into his recent failures. In inviting Peter to tend the lambs and feed the sheep who belonged to the community around him, Jesus was restoring him to his role of leadership and affirming his confidence in Peter.

In that action by Jesus, there is a message for all of us: Despite the fact that we have all been inspired by Jesus at some time or other, and despite the fact that we have all committed ourselves to walk in his footsteps, we still fail, we still deny him in one way or another. As often as not, we choose to give up on ourselves, telling ourselves that being connected to Jesus was good while it lasted. But it might be better if we got back to doing what we used to do before we ever got caught up with him. That’s what Peter did. When Jesus was executed and buried, he did what many people do when they lose someone dear to them. He tried to pick up the pieces by getting involved in an activity with which he was familiar. Moreover, he said to the other disciples: “I’m going fishing.” And they responded to the cue he gave them. But their efforts were decidedly unsuccessful. They caught nothing. Peter failed not only as a disciple but discovered quickly that he had forgotten how to catch fish.

This story, of course, calls to mind Luke’s account (Luke 5, 1-11) of how, after a fruitless night of hard work, Jesus turned up unexpectedly and urged Peter and his companions to put down their nets in a most unlikely spot. The large haul led Peter to say to Jesus: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man”. And the response from Jesus was one of reassurance: “From now onwards, you will be catching people”.  And now, that same man who had so recently demonstrated his sinfulness in his denial of Jesus, is lifted out of his shame and failure and encouraged to get on with the job of reaching out to those in need.

And the message for us? When we dare to acknowledge our sinfulness and confront the reality of our fragility and failure, we open ourselves up to discovering that the love God has for us is far deeper than any denial of ours, and the invitation from God to reach out to others is far stronger and more persistent than any failure on our part to accept that invitation.

One person who heard and responded to that invitation from the risen Jesus was William Sloane Coffin (1924 – 2006), a Presbyterian minister who, in the turbulent late 1960s when student unrest on university campuses was at its height, became chaplain to Yale University. An outspoken civil rights and antiwar campaigner, this man put social activism at the centre of his ministry as a pastor. That earned him bitter criticism from many of the politicians of his day. He was not deterred. In a homily on today’s gospel-reading, which he once delivered at the Riverside Church in New York, he commented: “Christ is risen to convert us, not from this life to some other life, but from something less than life to the possibility of full life. What makes Easter so exciting is the cosmic quality of it. For Easter has less to do with one person’s escape from the grave than with the victory of seemingly powerless love over loveless power. Easter represents a demand as well as a promise, a demand not that we sympathise with the crucified Christ, but that we pledge our loyalty to the risen one. That means an end to all loyalties to all people and to all institutions that crucify. For example, I don’t see how we can proclaim allegiance to the Risen Lord and remain indifferent to our government’s, and the world’s, intention not to abolish nuclear weapons. Or how can we think that the Risen Lord would applaud an economic system that reverses the priorities of Mary’s Magnificat. – filling the rich with good things and sending the poor away empty?”
“Do you love me, Peter, Christine, Brian, Emily, Jason, Sandra…?” “Lord, you know I love you!” “Then stop wallowing in the memory of your failures, and get on with feeding my lambs and tending my sheep!”

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Second Sunday of Easter – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them: “Peace be with you.” …Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it in my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” John 20, 19-31

The Eighteenth-Century French historian and philosopher, Voltaire earned a reputation for his trenchant wit, and his biting criticism of the Catholic Church. Despite that, I have to admit to having a sneaking admiration for him. Like all of us, he had his faults, but also his good points. He was a keen observer of human behaviour and quick to assess the many contradictions of which we are all capable. On one occasion he observed: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” (Complete Works of Voltaire, Volume 12, Part 1)

That, I suggest, is a suitable starting point to look at the apostle Thomas, one of the central figures of today’s gospel-reading. From our earliest years in religious education classes, we were taught that Thomas was a man lacking in faith, and, therefore, not to be imitated. That reputation attributed to him still survives in the label “doubting Thomas”, which is not applied to anyone as a compliment.

From looking at myself and at many of the other Catholics I have encountered, I have come to the conclusion that we Catholics are uncomfortable with doubt and with the fact that the journey to conversion is life-long. Somehow or other we expect our faith in God to be pristine pure, unwavering, neat and tidy, completely disinfected. We don’t like anything out of place when we gather to worship God at Mass. We are inclined to look askance at the weaknesses and failures of those around us, while we cover our own in secrecy. Somehow or other, we find it difficult to deal with open wounds. We are afraid that those we sit beside in the pews might reject us if they knew the kind of doubts, uncertainties and failures with which we struggle. We just can’t accept that all our parish communities are made up of fallible, fragile people who are all on the life-long journey to conversion of heart.

What appeals to me about Thomas is that he is courageous enough to acknowledge that doubt and uncertainty, the very things that frighten us, are part of his journey to faith. When we look closely at how he is described in the Gospels, we come to see him as a no-nonsense, practical person. In chapter 11 of his Gospel, John records Jesus expressing his intention to return to Judea at the news of the death of Lazarus. The response from the disciples was to urge him not to embark on what they regarded was a suicide mission: “Rabbi, it’s not long since the Jews wanted to stone you; are you going back there again?” (John 11, 8). With gallows humour, typical of a man who was a realist who reasoned that there was no point in arguing with Jesus, Thomas said to his companions: “Come on, let’s go. We may as well go and die with him” (John 11, 16). Then, when Jesus was in full flight giving his final discourse to the disciples, Thomas couldn’t cope with the description Jesus was giving of the place in the Father’s house he was going ahead to prepare for them. So, with a hint of frustration, Thomas interrupted: “Wait a minute, Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14, 5-6).

Before we look at the event that led to Thomas’ being labelled unfairly as a “doubter” for the last two thousand years, it might be worth considering why Thomas was absent from the group when Jesus appeared to the other disciples in the upper room. Remember that Mary Magdalen had already told the disciples that she had seen Jesus, and Peter and John had rushed to the tomb to check if she had been hallucinating. If they really believed her second story about actually encountering the risen Jesus, why did they continue to remain in hiding? Did they disbelieve her? Did they, as a group that was mainly male, subscribe to their culture’s view that women were unreliable witnesses? Maybe they accepted that Jesus was risen but could do nothing to protect them from those who had already executed him and were more than likely out to do the same to them? Perhaps the practical Thomas was the only one with enough sense to realise that they could be locked away for a lengthy period and would need food to sustain themselves. Somebody, then, had to do the shopping! If Mary Magdalen’s report of meeting the risen Jesus didn’t keep the disciples from hiding away, why should what the disciples told Thomas not be dismissed as illusionary? Thomas was no more a doubter than his close companions. And isn’t his doubt the same kind of doubt as we experience from time to time? Thomas wanted no other assurance than what Jesus gave his companions when he showed them his wounds and breathed peace upon them. But he dared to go a step further, insisting that he wanted to touch Jesus’ wounds to verify that he was encountering the crucified Jesus not just an illusion, an apparition or a ghost, demonstrating that he was, indeed, a practical man.

When Jesus appeared again in the upper room, Thomas was there, but received no rebuke. While Jesus invited him to touch his wounds, John makes no comment about whether or not Thomas did that. I am convinced that Thomas felt no need to do so. The interpersonal encounter was enough to confirm for him that Jesus was truly risen. What is more significant is that Thomas’ response “My Lord and My God” marks the climax of John’s Gospel. No other character in the Gospel had named Jesus as God. His act of faith has been the catalyst for two thousand years of theological exploration into what we now call Christology.

Thomas was courageous enough to insist on an experience of the risen Jesus that would satisfy him. He needed a personal interaction with Jesus. Clearly, Mary Magdalen’s experience of the risen Jesus was not something the other disciples had. They had only her account of what she experienced. A person’s account of any experience is not the same as the experience itself. Similarly, the other disciples could not experience the risen Jesus on behalf of Thomas.

Easter proclaims that Christ is risen and alive and active in our world. No amount of repeating that will reinforce our faith. Like Thomas and Mary Magdalen and all the other disciples we, too, must encounter the risen Christ. The only way in which we will encounter the risen Christ is in the people in whom he resides. As we honour and respect and reach out to everyone of our sisters and brothers in whose lives and hearts Jesus dwells, we will experience glimpses of the risen Christ. As we build relationships that are just, respectful, compassionate and caring we will encounter the risen Christ. As we take the risk of sharing our scars and wounds, our disappoints, failures and fragility, we will share with those around us something of the peace, compassion and life of the risen Christ alive in us.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Easter Sunday – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So, she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.”   John 20, 1-9

The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, not surprisingly, differ from one Gospel to the next. After all, all stories depend on the narrator’s perspective to whatever he or she is describing. However, one element that is common to all the Gospel accounts of the resurrection is the inability, or even the reluctance, of the earliest witnesses to accept the reality which confronted them.

Today’s gospel-reading (I suggest you read all the way up to verse 27) gives us an insight into John’s skill as a storyteller at its very best. He tells us that, when Mary Magdalene discovered the tomb empty, she just assumed that someone had taken Jesus’ body away. Perhaps she even thought it was the “gardener” whom she later failed to recognise (John 20, 14-15). After Peter had run to the empty tomb and inspected the cloths that had been neatly folded, we are told that he went back home. – no fuss, no excitement, no hint of expectation!

The clear implication from the way John tells the story is that all the followers of Jesus (except one) viewed their leader’s death from the same perspective as they viewed every other mortal’s death. Jesus the man was executed, and his lifeless body was placed in a tomb. Jesus was dead and gone, and it was now up to them to pick up the pieces and get on with their lives to the best of their ability. Those who were left behind were all practical women and men, firmly grounded in the reality of this world. From that perspective, they were unable to recognise an earth-shattering revelation of God that had taken place in their midst.

Let’s, for a moment, take another look at the succession of events and what those events imply. When Mary Magdalene alerted them to what she had discovered, Peter and John (presumably followed by the other disciples) ran to the empty tomb, saw the situation for themselves, and apparently came to no conclusions – “The disciples then went home again”, concluding, perhaps, that grave-robbers had been at work. Even Mary Magdalene, after lingering at the tomb weeping, and engaging in conversation with two angels, still concluded that some unknown person had carried away Jesus’ corpse. Then Thomas, the ultimate sceptic, insisting on clear, empirical evidence, would accept no rumours until he had touched the wounds left by the nails of crucifixion. Then, when the risen Jesus did appear on the lakeside shore, he looked like any other man who had built a fire on the edge of a lake. In painting these scenes, John attributed to all those first witnesses human expectations that fitted the way in which Jesus was known to them – as a highly admired and dearly loved, yet very mortal, man. And if there was anything to confirm Jesus’ mortality, it was his brutal death by crucifixion. All this, of course, underlined the authenticity of the incarnation – that Jesus was as human as we are, in every way except sin.

Underpinning John’s Gospel are the dual foundational assertions that the God whom Jesus Christ named as Father was both creative and loving, a God who loved us all into life. That is one message that the very first disciples of Jesus absorbed and embraced. Moreover, it is a message from which all four Gospel writers did not deviate.
The interactions between Jesus and those with whom he engaged are described by the Gospel writers in ways that confirm Jesus’ humanity. He encountered the halt, the lame and the sick, believers and sceptics, soldiers and their leaders, tax-collectors and prostitutes, scribes and Pharisees, representatives of all the social ranks of his day. Some of those encounters were fraught with human friction and tension, many were friendly and full of compassion and understanding.

Those closest to Jesus had seen him in all his humanity. They had also seen him as a persuasive teacher and preacher, a faith-healer and a wonder-worker. They had witnessed death during their lives, and they saw him executed on a cross. They saw him buried in the same manner of other dead people. In their grief at the loss of someone dear to them, they were not sitting around eagerly awaiting his resurrection. The news of his missing body brought by Mary Magdalen and their own experience at the empty tomb left them utterly confused. Understandably they were not expecting his resurrection, and it took time and a succession of encounters before the truth dawned on them.

It took thirty years for Jesus himself to discover that God was inviting him to be the Messiah, the Christ of God. He came to realise that his own integrity demanded that he challenge the religious leaders of his day. Moreover, he discovered that such challenge would eventually lead to his death. But Jesus was also a Jew of his day. He worshipped in the temple with everyone around him. He was not conscious of being the “Second Person of the Blessed Trinity”. That was a theological proposition reached centuries after his time by very intelligent theologians. There were times when Peter recognised Jesus as God’s Messiah and was courageous enough to say so. But his subsequent behaviour demonstrated that it took a lifetime for his words to become a conviction he embraced.

While we ponder the confusion, doubt and uncertainty of the earliest women and men disciples as they tried to come to terms with the resurrection of Jesus, let’s not forget that there have been and will continue to be times in our lives when we have questions and doubts about the central tenet of our Christian faith: “God raised Jesus from death”. And that God’s promise is that we too will be raised from our graves. What exactly that might mean calls for another reflection at another time. But not today!
When we work our way through all the events that led up to the death of Jesus and the confusion and doubt in those whose lives were turned upside down when God raised him from the grave, the ultimate message is that the compassion, generosity, selflessness, mercy and justice that Jesus lived and proclaimed are truly vindicated. The resurrection does not deny the reality of suffering, illness, violence, pain, loss and death. It really reminds us that things like bigotry, prejudice, hatred, injustice and death are really prerequisites for resurrection. The resurrection holds out to us, and to those to whom we reach out in times of loss and devastation, a message of hope that goodness will ultimately triumph. The resurrection of Jesus gives us reason to be agents of resurrection for those who are suffering loss, grief and disaster. If resurrection is something to which we give only notional assent, there can be no sense in getting out and fighting for justice, truth and integrity. It calls for action.

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Passion/Palm Sunday – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

One of the criminals hanging in crucifixion blasphemed Jesus: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us.” But the other one rebuked him: “Have you no fear of God, seeing you are under the same sentence? We deserve it, after all. We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.” He then said: “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.” And Jesus replied: “I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise.”   Luke 22,14 – 23, 56

In Luke’s account of the events leading up to and surrounding the Passion of Jesus, there are detailed descriptions of three crowd scenes in which many of the participants are carried on waves of high emotion. In describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the last time, Luke depicted him riding on the back of an ass, with the crowd of bystanders spreading their cloaks on the roadway in front of him. Whether or not those in the crowd recognised the significance of their actions, Luke saw it as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah: “See, your king shall come to you; a just saviour is he, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Zech 9, 9). Less than a week later, another crowd (Were some of their number from the previous crowd?) stood before Pilate braying for Jesus’ blood, after both Pilate and Herod had found no reason to condemn him to death. Luke highlights the irony of the situation by citing the name of the criminal the crowd preferred to Jesus – Bar Abbas (son of the father)! The third crowd, seemingly a majority of whom were women, lamented aloud for the one they had come to love. Luke underlines their presence by referring to them three times, reminding us that there are times when the only thing we can offer to those suffering around us is our presence. Of course, this description of the three crowds challenges each of us to reflect on whether there have been times in our lives when we have taken a place in more than one of those crowds.

As an entry point for reflecting on another part of today’s long gospel-reading, I invite you to read an imaginative piece contributed to Commonweal magazine back in 2008 by journalist and regular contributor, Peter Steinfels:

“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23, 39-43)

And so I was—and so I am. Luke may have patched my grammar and improved my wording. Nonetheless, he had the story right. That’s what I said, that’s what Jesus said. Believe me, I’m not complaining. But, I still feel uncomfortable about the misunderstanding of exactly what I did there, hanging on that cross, just minutes—it seemed like centuries—before dying.

I’m not talking about all the fanciful legends woven around my fifteen seconds of fame. Going down in history, for instance, as the Good Thief, when thief was hardly the word for it. We didn’t just rob. We assaulted, we murdered. We weren’t just thieves. We were bandits, brigands, outlaws, and cutthroats. Revolutionaries, too—or so we liked to think. When your country is occupied, you can justify about anything.

Being whitewashed as a Good Thief was the least of it. Imaginative folks eventually made-up names for me, Joathas or Dismas, the good guy on the right, and Maggatras or Gestas for the bad guy on the left. They concocted stories. It was told that as adults or maybe even as children we had crossed paths with Jesus.

But none of that had anything to do with what was written in the Gospels and especially in Luke. As I said, he had the words more or less right. It’s the interpretation that’s a problem.

Get the picture, please. We’re beaten, bloodied, and gasping for breath. People are jeering at this guy in the middle. It seems he has called himself the messiah or saviour or king of the Jews, something like that. They put an inscription, “King of the Jews,” over his head. So show your stuff, they shout. Then my fellow outlaw joins in.

I tell you the truth. I had never heard of Jesus. Of messiahs, of restored kingdoms, of Davidic kings—that was different. All my life, I had heard such talk. But Jesus? He must have created a stir, gained a following, angered the authorities. Why else would he be bleeding and choking to death here between us? Beyond that, I knew nothing.

Was he the messiah, was he king of the Jews, did he have a kingdom? Or was he a poor fool? Did it matter?

When my mother was dying, I knelt next to her. She would close and open her eyes. “I see Elisha,” she would say. “I see a chariot without a horse. I see streams of water.”

“Yes, mother,” I would answer. “I think Elisha is coming. Yes, there is a horse. Yes, there are streams of water.” Did it matter?

So when the crowds jeered at this dying man and the soldiers did, too, and my comrade in crime thinks he is honouring his last minutes by adding to their taunts, well, I just couldn’t help myself.

“Jesus,” I said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Maybe that would comfort him, dull the pain, combat the despair. Really, I didn’t know.

People have thought that I was making a great confession of faith. They have said that I knew in a flash all that this man I’d never seen before had been endlessly preaching and explaining to his followers. It wasn’t like that at all.

Read Luke’s words carefully and you’ll see. It was no act of faith. It was just a bit of decency. It won me paradise all the same.”

Isn’t it true that every act of decency we do somehow reflects Jesus and the Gospel?

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection