Gay Walsh

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

When Jesus turned and saw them (John’s two disciples) following, he said to them: “What are you looking for?” John 1, 35-42

One of the fascinating aspects of the four Gospels is that many questions are attributed to Jesus, while he himself rarely gives direct answers to questions put to him. Moreover, the answers he does give are often cryptic or puzzling to his audience. In presenting the questions that Jesus asks, the Gospel writers expect us, too, to answer them. After all, that’s what is required of us if we dare to participate in the gospel-readings we hear whenever they are read to us and whenever we spend quiet time reading the Gospels for ourselves. Just for a moment, let’s recall some of the questions attributed to Jesus: “Where is your courage? What little faith you have!” (to the apostles in the boat during the storm, Matthew 8, 26); “Who do you say I am?” (to the apostles in Matthew 16, 15); “What do you want me to do for you?” (to a blind man in Mark 10, 51); “Why were you searching for me?” (to Mary & Joseph in Luke 2, 49); “Do you love me?” (to Peter in John 21, 17).

The very first words attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel are the question we hear in today’s gospel-reading: “What are you looking for?” (to two of the disciples of John the Baptist, John 1, 38) Their response “Where are you staying?” carries the unspoken request “We want to come to talk with you.” Moreover, the reply that Jesus gives them demonstrates clearly that he is attuned to their query: “Come along and see for yourselves.”

While we are not given the substance of the conversation that took place between Jesus and his guests, we soon learn that, by the next day, Jesus had attracted four new disciples in Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel.

Yet, while this gospel-reading describes an event in the lives of Jesus and four curious men who came to him wondering who he was and what was driving him to do what he was doing, the question Jesus put to them also hangs in the air for us today. Jesus is saying to each of us: “Friend, what are you looking for?” And while we might be struggling for words of reply, the decisions and choices we make in the course of every day spell out our response in action. We know in our hearts when those choices and decisions are honest and healthy and when they lack the stamp of integrity and are unworthy of us as would-be followers of Jesus. Being a participant in today’s gospel reading means giving time to pondering and answering the question Jesus puts to each of us: “Friend, what are you looking for?” The very fact that Jesus puts that question to us is an invitation to engage with him. Engaging with him may well take us in directions of which we have not yet dreamed.

Today’s first reading from the Book of Samuel complements the gospel-reading in that it illustrates the unexpected twists and turns that can come in one’s life when God’s invitations are heard and responded to. Once again, context is very helpful in coming to understand the roles of Samuel and Eli in the story we hear. Eli’s mother Hannah was Elkanah’s second wife. His first wife Peninnah had borne him many sons and daughters, and had fallen into the practice of taunting Hannah because she was barren. One day Eli, a priest in the temple, noticed Hannah praying and weeping, and because he saw her lips moving and heard nothing, he concluded she was drunk. She was, in fact, praying that she would have a son, and that, if God heard her prayer, she would give the child up to service in the temple. When Eli challenged her about being drunk, she explained to him the reason for her sadness and bitterness. In response Eli said to Hannah: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked.” In due course, Hannah gave birth to Eli, and true to her promise, Hannah, accompanied by Elkanah, handed their child over to Eli. When Samuel was old enough, he became Eli’s assistant. Ironically, Eli’s own grown-up sons were renegades, described as “a bad lot, who didn’t know God, and who could not have cared less about the customs of priests among the people”. Worse still, Eli had not called them into line. As for Hannah and Elkanah, they went on to have three more sons and two daughters.

Today’s first reading picks up the story of Samuel’s vocation in the temple, and how God intervened in his life, waking him three times from his sleep one night. Thinking it was Eli who was calling him, Samuel went each time to Eli to see what he wanted. At the boy’s third visit, it dawned on Eli that it was God who was calling him. Telling Samuel to go back to bed, Eli added: “If the voice calls again, say: ‘Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen.’” Therein lies the crunch for us. Does God intervene in our lives? Does God invite us to get involved in anything? And if so, how and when do we hear God’s voice?

In fairly recent years, the long-standing Benedictine practice of lectio divina has made a reappearance in some parts of our Church. Groups of Catholics and other Christians have begun to gather to read and reflect on passages from the Bible. The selected passage is read three times, with an extended period for silent reflection after each reading. Group members then share with one another the insights that have come to them.

The busyness of modern life sometimes results in a loss of our ability to listen effectively to one another. There may well be a need for us to relearn how to listen – to the people close to us, to those we meet at work, while shopping and everywhere else, and, indeed, to God. When we come to believe that God does actually speak to us through the people we encounter and through our thoughts and feelings, and through the events of our lives, then we start on the way to renewing ourselves and taking seriously our vocation as followers of Jesus. Then, we will find the courage to pray as Eli advised Samuel to pray: “Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen, and ready to respond.”

There is a telling sentence early in today’s first reading: “This was at a time when the revelation of God was rarely heard or seen” (Samuel 3, 1). In other words, Eli was not expecting any life-changing message from God to Samuel. Much more so the young Samuel. Yet, what Samuel heard was a message of judgement on Eli and his family. It must have been a hard message for a young lad like Samuel to hear and even harder for him to share it with the man who was his boss. Ultimately, it turned out to be a good message because it was about the renewal of Israel.

The message from all this for us is that we not only have to learn to listen but to believe also that God can and does speak to us, and that what we hear will not necessarily be a comfortable message. God will not tell us to love everybody, to forgive everyone, but to open our heart to this particular person, to forgive the angry man who lives next door. If we dare to pray: “Speak, God, for your servant is ready to listen”, we can’t be sure where God will lead us.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

The Baptism of Jesus – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

At that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” Mark 1, 7-11

Located in Jerusalem is an institute dedicated to the study of Scripture in its Jewish context and tradition. It is called Bat Kol, and was established by the Sisters of Sion. One of its aims is to promote Jewish–Christian dialogue. Another is to help its students to incorporate their studies, in this context, into their self-understanding as Christians. Bat Kol, literally means an echo or ‘the daughter of a voice’ and, in Hebrew is an expression for the voice of God. Bat Kol was the voice of God that Jesus heard when he emerged from the Jordan after being baptised by John the Baptist.
The gospel-readings over the Christmas-Epiphany period provided us with stories from Matthew and Luke about the birth and childhood of Jesus. Mark has none of these, and launches straight into an account of Jesus’ adult life and the beginning of his public ministry. In his introduction, Mark is clear and to the point: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1, 1).
Mark introduces Jesus as the Christ (Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah) – God’s anointed one, and the long-awaited deliverer of God’s people.
From the outset, Mark declares that his story is good news for all those living in hope of God’s deliverance. Isn’t that the essential message of the Christmas story? The birth of Jesus was indeed good news for all those people living in hope. However, the way in which this Messiah is going to deliver God’s people will shatter the expectations of the large majority of the Jewish people. According to Mark, Jesus did not come as a powerful warrior to expel the Roman occupiers of Israel. Moreover, he did not make his appearance among the Jewish political and religious leaders in Jerusalem, but in the Judean wilderness with the ordinary people who had come to repent and be washed by John in the waters of the Jordan. From the beginning, Mark set up a tension between what was expected of the Messiah and who Jesus really was. That tension intensified as Mark’s Gospel unfolded.
Mark presented John the Baptist as a prophet whose role was to prepare his people for the arrival of the Messiah. He made it clear that the most suitable preparation was a change of mind and heart. The words Mark put into the mouth of the Baptist are borrowed directly from the prophet Isaiah, and news of the Baptist’s appearance is taken from the prophet Malachi:
“Thunder in the desert! ‘Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God…Then God’s glory will shine, and everyone will see it.’” (Isaiah 40, 3-5)
“Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me.” (Malachi 3, 1)
John the Baptist knew that sin distanced people from God, so his call to repentance and forgiveness was a symbolic way of calling his people out of exile. As he went about his task of baptising people with water, he made reference to the one for whom he was preparing, stating that he would baptise with the Holy Spirit. That was the cue for Jesus to enter and ask John to baptise him. In doing so, Jesus identified himself with the ordinary people who struggled with human frailty and the ups and downs of life.
We are not told why and how Jesus made the long journey from his home-town of Nazareth to the Judean wilderness. But surely, he must have heard rumours of this unusual character who was calling people to repentance. Mark made no reference to the fact that John and Jesus were cousins, and there is no indication in Mark’s story that John and Jesus actually recognised one another.
The punchline of this opening section of Mark’s Gospel is what happened as Jesus emerged from the Jordan. We are told that he saw the heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove on him and that he heard a voice (Bat Kol) from heaven declaring: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” (Mark 1, 11)
The Hebrew word for “torn apart” is schizw, and is used only one other time in Mark’s Gospel – when he describes the temple veil being torn apart at the very moment of Jesus’ death. This is Mark’s symbolic way of declaring that the divide between heaven and earth has been broken and that in Jesus the power of God’s love, mercy, compassion, freedom, light and forgiveness has been let loose in the world. In Jesus, God is alive and active in our world, and because of our baptism in which God’s Spirit comes to dwell in us, we are meant to be agents of God in the lives of everyone we encounter. The most significant moment in our lives was when we were baptised into the Christian community.
The Spirit of God who anointed Jesus as Messiah, the Christ of God, and confirmed him in his mission to the world, also continues to hover over each of us brothers and sisters of Jesus, inviting us to continue the mission of Jesus by reaching out to the lost and alienated, healing those who are hurting, feeding the hungry, freeing those who are imprisoned by fear, doubt, depression and loneliness, and bringing peace and justice and mercy to everyone with whom we engage.
That’s a tall order, but let’s not forget that we, too, have God’s Spirit to guide us.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Feast of the Epiphany – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judah territory – this was during Herod’s kingship. – a band of magi (scholars) arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around: “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signalled his birth. We’re on a pilgrimage to worship him.” Matthew 2, 1-12

As we begin our reflection on the readings for Epiphany, let’s remind ourselves that all stories are true, and that some are based on fact. Matthew’s gospel story of the Magi coming to worship the newborn Jesus is almost certainly a mixture of fact and wide-ranging imagination. What matters most is the message Matthew was intent on conveying.

Approximately 580 years before the Christian era, the writer of the book of Isaiah penned a poem for the benefit of the people of Jerusalem, who had returned home, after several generations in exile, to find their city in ruins. To encourage them, the poet painted a picture of Jerusalem restored to its former glory. That poem, which we hear in today’s first reading, is effectively about an attractive-looking, but really empty past. The poem, which, among other things, makes reference to a resurrected economy restored with help from foreign trading, reads as follows:
“Get out of bed, Jerusalem!
Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.
God’s bright glory has risen for you.
The whole earth is wrapped in darkness,
all people sunk in deep darkness.
But God rises on you,
God’s sunrise glory breaks over you…
And then, streams of camel caravans as far as the eye can see,
young camels of nomads in Midian and Ephah,
pouring in from the south of Sheba,
loaded with gold and frankincense,
preaching the praises of God…
(Isaiah 60, 1-6)

While the kind of restoration for which they hoped did not eventuate, the Jewish people continued to long for a Messiah who, they expected, would realise their dreams of status, power, independence and wealth. They became deaf to the message of the prophet Micah, who had foretold that the Messiah would come in humble circumstances, and be born in the insignificant village of Bethlehem.

When Herod got wind of the arrival of travellers from the East, who were searching for a newborn king of the Jews, and who would usher in an era of peace and prosperity, he took fright, imagining that his position and comfort would come under threat. So, instead of relying on what he had been told by the newly-arrived travellers from the East, he sought a second opinion from the religion scholars resident in Jerusalem, asking them where the Messiah was to be born. They referred him to the prophecy of Micah: “It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land, no longer bringing up the rear. From you will come a leader who will shepherd my people, Israel. He’ll be no upstart, no pretender…He’ll stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength. And the people will have a good and safe home, for the whole world will hold him in respect – Peacemaker of the world!” (Micah 5, 2-4).

In response to this, Herod redirected the magi to Bethlehem. Despite their astrological calculations, they had arrived nine miles off their targeted destination. Then, He had cunningly tried to use them to do his dirty work of locating the newborn king who, he feared, would bring him down. Matthew, however, recorded that these searchers had heeded a dream, warning them not to return to Herod with news of what they had discovered in Bethlehem.

Matthew would have been familiar with both Isaiah and Micah, and so borrowed heavily from them. Notice, however, that he made no mention of camels or of the number of travelling magi. Countless cultures since then have concluded gratuitously that, because they had brought three gifts, there must have been three of them. In time the story of the magi has been expanded and embellished. Moreover, three names have been invented for them.    What then is the point of this story for us, in our time and place?

In an article written about the significance of Epiphany, the renowned, American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann commented: “The narrative of Epiphany is the story of two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises. We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. It is amazing—the true accent of epiphany—that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials… Our task is to let the vulnerability of Micah 5 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are off by nine miles. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency… The way ahead is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighbourliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into ploughshares.” (Walter Brueggemann, Off by Nine Miles: Isaiah 60, 1-7; Matthew 2, 1-12 in The Christian Century Magazine, Dec. 2001)

Worthy of note is the impact that our own feelings of insecurity can have on us. They can make us belligerent, defensive and angry. It was his insecurity that fuelled Herod’s fury. In response, Matthew presented his audience with a parody of the king he saw in Herod. He saw a man who simply did not live up to the ancient, masculine virtues attributed to kings – courage, honesty and self-control. Gripped by fear and anger, Herod lashed out. Yet, despite his violence, he failed in his designs. He is a clear indication that even tyrants who act like buffoons can be deadly. Our modern world has seen a succession of buffoon leaders like Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and others in the so-called developed world since them. In contrast, the birth of Jesus ushered in a reign of compassion, mercy and justice.

Epiphany puts the focus on the journey that every one of us is invited to travel. It is a journey that ultimately is a search for God – finding God as central to the meaning of our life; finding God in the ordinariness of family and community, finding God in reaching out to others in need. These are all epiphanies or revelations of God’s presence. As a new year unfolds, may we be alert to the countless epiphanies in which we might discover the love of God among us.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Feast of the Holy Family – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Behold, this child is destined to mark the failure and recovery of many in Israel, to be a figure who will be misunderstood and contradicted…” Luke 2, 22-40

Today’s gospel-reading draws our attention to aspects of our Judeo-Christian tradition with which many of us were familiar in our years of childhood and adolescence. A lot of attention was given to the importance of promoting the cohesion of the nuclear family. As regular church-goers, we came to know those elderly people who were labelled as “pillars of the church”. Simeon and Anna are presented to us as “pillars of the Temple” – very ordinary, prayerful people, who had faithfully been hoping for the coming of the Messiah in their declining years. When Mary gave Simeon her baby to hold, he had something like what we would now call a “peak experience”. Luke refers to it as a felt experience of God’s Spirit. Intuitively, Simeon sensed that the child in his arms was no ordinary child, and was, in fact, the Messiah, for whose coming he had been longing and praying. Emotion spilled out of him: “My dreams have been fulfilled, so I can now die contented.” Left speechless by Simeon’s unexpected outburst, Mary and Joseph were further stunned by his prediction that their lives would be trammelled by disappointment, pain and grief by the direction in which Jesus would take his life as he matured.

Luke makes it clear that Joseph and Mary had taken their child to the Temple to comply with a Jewish law that had been proclaimed by Moses hundreds of years before: “Redeem every first-born child among your sons. When the time comes and your son asks you: ‘What does this mean?’ you tell him: ‘God brought us out of Egypt, out of a house of slavery, with a powerful hand. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, God killed every firstborn in Egypt, the firstborn of both humans and animals. That’s why I (Moses) make a sacrifice to God for every first male birth from the womb, and redeem (buy back) every firstborn son.’ The observance functions like a sign on your hands or a symbol on the middle of your forehead: God brought us out of Egypt with a powerful hand” (Exodus 13, 13-16).

In this context, there is a great irony in the fact that, within a very short time, Joseph and Mary were forced to go with their son as refugees to the very country from which their ancestors had been rescued. While Jewish law stipulated that every family’s firstborn son “belonged” to God, the ritual, to which Joseph and Mary were complying by taking Jesus to the Temple and making a traditional offering of two turtle doves to buy him back, has had a resonance in our own Christian history, when families were expected to give one of their children to the Church to become a priest or a religious Sister or Brother.

Both Matthew and Luke have included in their Gospels stories about Jesus’ birth, childhood and adolescence, which had been preserved orally for generations. Most Scripture scholars believe that these stories were late inclusions in the Gospels. Those stories illustrate just how accurate Simeon was in the predictions he gave to Joseph and Mary. As life unfolded for them, they were victims of the social and political tensions that impacted on ordinary people in Palestine. They were forced to seek anonymity as refugees in Egypt, and that entailed a long and arduous journey. Earlier, they had to endure village gossip when Mary’s pregnancy became obvious. Then there was the trauma associated with their adolescent son’s venture into independence as he engaged with teachers in the Temple. On top of all that were the surprises, insults, criticisms and conflicts that emanated from those with whom Jesus engaged when he embarked on his public ministry. Mary had to endure the grief of seeing her adult son wrongly condemned, tortured and murdered by those whose status and comfort were threatened by the message her son proclaimed. The manner in which Joseph, Mary and Jesus dealt with these challenges and injustices is an inspiration to the people of our generation as we contend with the fears, tensions and crises that threaten the comfort and security of our lives as families and communities.

There are times when I wonder if Mary and Joseph ever discussed with one another matters about which Gabriel had made no mention and which had been omitted from Joseph’s dreams. For instance, there must have been times when Jesus’ public outbursts surprised and embarrassed them. Surely, some of their son’s words and actions clearly indicated that he was his own man, that he was out of step with them. That very fact reminds us that such is the lot of every family that has ever existed in any culture or nation on earth. The exchange between Jesus and his parents that Luke records in the verses that follow immediately after today’s gospel-reading signals that Jesus was on the way to pursuing his own life journey. And isn’t that something that confronts every parent? No matter what the hopes and expectations parents have for their children, parents ultimately have to accept that the children they have loved into life and then nurtured, encouraged and educated are not their possessions. Every single human being is a mystery to be respected, and the first step towards respecting that mystery is to allow the other the freedom to grow into the person he or she wants to be. The bonds of family allow us all to be there to support those we love when their best efforts to be themselves falter and even disintegrate. Therein lies one of the great challenges of family and community life.

Still, the ways in which Jesus thought, spoke and acted during his three years of public ministry surely developed over the previous thirty years of his life. I wonder what the conversation around the family table at meal-times must have been like across the years before his public ministry, and, indeed, after he ventured into it. All three members of that family were part of a bigger village community. We know how friends, neighbours and acquaintances reacted when Jesus preached in his home-town synagogue in Nazareth. What he said did not suit the expectations of the locals. They responded angrily, intending to do him violence. Was there ever a time when Mary hoped and even prayed that her son might temper his criticism of the religious leaders, and cease stirring them up and baiting them? Were there times when she and Joseph wondered where his thinking was taking him? Were there times when they felt embarrassed by his words and actions? Let’s not forget that all three of them were fully human.

As we consider today’s gospel-reading and its implications for us and the various families and communities to which we belong, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that we all belong to the human family, that we are all sisters or brothers to one another. Finally, it is worthy of note that, in telling the story of the encounter between Joseph, Mary and Jesus and Simeon and Anna, Luke was preparing his audience for what unfolds in his Gospel. The very words which Luke attributed to Simeon, and the fact that Anna and Simeon were the first to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ of God, point to the principal themes which Luke develops in his Gospel. – God has a preference for the poor and seemingly insignificant, the ordinary people would be the first to recognise and accept Jesus as the Messiah, and pain, rejection, insult and violence would be visited on Jesus and those who walk with him.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fourth Sunday of Advent and the Birth of Jesus – a reflection on the readings for those days

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. Behold, you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” Mary said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Luke 1, 26-38
“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1, 67-79

Though there is a five-day gap between the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas, if we are not careful, the frenzied activity so often associated with Christmas can end up crowding out any serious reflection on the readings we are offered for both those days.

The focus of the gospel-reading for the last Sunday of Advent is the encounter that Mary had with the angel Gabriel (in Aramaic and Hebrew Gabriel means God is my strength). In the Scripture, a visit from an angel was a frightening experience that left the person who received the visit with a degree of ongoing disturbance and many questions. Earlier in this first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, there is an account of Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel in the Temple. Zechariah knew that his wife Elizabeth was well beyond her child-bearing years, and was, in fact, sterile. Incredulous at the news of Elizabeth’s unexpected and miraculous pregnancy, Zechariah dared to ask: “How can this be? Do you really expect me to believe this? I’m an old man, and my wife is an old woman” (cf Luke 1, 18). For his trouble, Zechariah was reprimanded by Gabriel and left unable to speak until his son was born.

I wonder why it was that, when Gabriel brought good news to Mary, her question “How can this be?” was received differently. Did Gabriel take into account her tender years and lack of experience? Was there sincerity underneath her question and cynicism or sarcasm underneath Zechariah’s? Was it the kind of question that carried a mixture of fear, courage and trust? We all know, from our experience of having to face challenges and difficult decisions, that some of our questions hold a tension between doubt and trust, allowing us to say to ourselves and others: “I have my fears and doubts, but I’ll take the risk.”

It’s really important, I suggest, to look carefully at Gabriel’s response to Mary’s “How?”. The angel did not give her a roadmap or a detailed strategic plan. But she was given an assurance that she would be guided by God’s Spirit as her life unfolded: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Highest hover over you” (Luke 1, 35). What unfolded was no life of ease. She and Joseph undoubtedly had to contend with village gossip, and then, with a birth that took place in a shed which offered a food bin for cattle as a crib. Moreover, there was an enforced journey to a foreign country to escape the violence of a blood-thirsty king. And that was only the beginning. Still, Mary held firm to Gabriel’s reassurance that God’s Spirit would not desert her, as she and Joseph were left to make an endless succession of difficult decisions.

My thoughts these past weeks have turned to every mother and father who have welcomed a new-born into their lives. Their fears have surely been heightened by the threat to their child coming from the lurking presence of Covid 19. Yet the birth of every child is a statement of protest, of new life to a world that looks as though it is dying. The parents of these new-borns have a right to ask God in faith: “How will our child survive?” Even if an answer does not come to them in black and white, they know that God’s Spirit is ever at work in our world and that God will help them, as the Spirit guided Mary, to find the necessary tenacity, courage and strength to make their way through whatever happens.

As we turn our attention to Christmas, I am reminded of an invitation I once received to join a parish community in Canada as they celebrated the Christmas Vigil Mass in a local farmer’s barn, surrounded by sheep, cows, chickens and the farmyard dogs. It was an attempt to get a feel for the circumstances in which Jesus came into our world. In his homily, the presiding priest referred to a legend that survives in some parts of Canada, and speaks of how, at midnight on Christmas Eve, a spirit of peace comes down on the world and encompasses it so powerfully that even farmyard animals and wild deer and bears fall to their knees in adoration of the child born to Mary. Perhaps that legend either inspired Shakespeare or was derived from words he put into the mouth of Marcellus as he conversed with Horatio and Barnado in Act 1, Scene 1 of Hamlet, after they had encountered the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The ghost disappeared at the sound of a rooster crowing:

It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawn singeth all night long,
And then they say no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed, and so gracious, is that time.

Hamlet, Act 1, Sc.1, lines 159-166

Every culture generates legends and myths around the very significant events in its history. The various people of the world have developed their particular cultures, and groups within those cultures grow their sub-cultures. The scouting movement has its distinctive sub-culture. Churches and religious groups also develop their sub-cultures. The birth of Jesus was such a significant event for the world that almost every culture has generated its own legends around it. Matthew and Luke highlighted the birth of Jesus with stories of extraordinary happenings. They gave us angel choirs, shepherds as the first witnesses of Jesus’ birth, and magi who followed a star from the East. Their stories have been the inspiration of countless Christmas carols from all over the world. It matters little whether or not the stories they gave us were based on historical fact. Their message was that the birth of Jesus was the result of Divine intervention, and that Jesus, though human like us, would have an impact on the world like no other, before or after him.

As we celebrate the birth of God among us in the person of Jesus, our celebrations will be empty unless we in our turn become agents of peace and justice, of tolerance and encouragement, of forgiveness, hope and light for everyone we encounter. We send to one another at Christmas all manner of generous, loving and caring messages. Those messages will be meaningless unless we walk our talk and bring it to life in our actions and relating.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Third Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

There was a man named John sent by God, who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that through him all might believe. – but only to testify to the light, for he himself was not the light. John 1, 6-8, 19-28

Even in the time of Jesus, anyone who lived on a diet of wild honey and locusts, and dressed in a garment of camel hair tied up with a leather belt, would have been regarded as odd. Today’s gospel reading from John describes what happened when a group of priests and Levites from Jerusalem were deputised to confront John the Baptist. While the interrogators’ opening question “Who are you?” looks innocent enough, there is a certain edge and hostility to the succession of questions that come tumbling out of their mouths. Effectively, the Baptist is being threatened with something like: “Who do you think you are, stirring up the local people? Explain yourself, and it had better be convincing!”

In the mind of the Gospel-writer, John the Baptist was a man who clearly knew who he was and what his mission in life was. He was not full of his own self-importance, and certainly had no delusions of grandeur. So, he allayed any fears they might have had by immediately telling his visitors who he wasn’t: *Don’t for one moment start imagining that I think I’m the Messiah or Elijah or some other prophet. However, I am calling people to a change of heart, as preparation to welcome one among us whose presence and importance has not yet been recognised.”

Like so many people who look different, and who don’t meet the expectations of those around them, the Baptist was a source of anxiety and discomfort for those who were easily threatened.

In recounting this episode in the Baptist’s life, the Gospel writer very skilfully compared John the Baptist with those who had come to question him. The Evangelist introduces the Baptist with: “There was a man named John sent by God, who came as a witness to testify to the light…” (John 1, 6). In contrast, John the Baptist’s interrogators were sent by the Jews and Pharisees (John 1, 19; John 1, 24).

If we are open to participating in this gospel-reading, we are challenged with a succession of questions:
John the Baptist was secure in knowing who he was. Am I as secure in knowing who I am and what my mission in life is?
John the Baptist was sent by God. Am I, too, someone who has been sent by God into my world? And for what purpose?
The Baptist’s interrogators were sent by the Jews and a group of Pharisees – leaders who were either not courageous enough to confront the Baptist themselves or who had already dismissed him as a religious lunatic. Do I allow myself to be drawn into asking difficult questions on behalf of others who lack the courage or the ability to engage in healthy confrontation? Am I quick to dismiss people who don’t conform with my expectations of what is appropriate dress, speech and conduct?

I am not entirely comfortable wrestling with questions like these. In fact, I suggest that they are questions the answers to which change as the circumstances of our lives change. While I am the same person now as I was at the age of twenty-five, I am more confident, now I’m in my seventies, in knowing who I am. Moreover, I have a clearer sense of my mission as a disciple of Jesus. However, wrestling with questions such as these calls for some measure of discernment and a willingness to be open to the promptings of God’s Spirit, who continues to be at work in our world and in our lives. In recent times, Pope Francis has repeatedly called us to be conscious to the signs of our times, to be alert to the promptings of God’s Spirit in our lives.

“Who are you?” is a question that people have asked one another throughout history, It is a question that we human beings sometimes ask of God. Boaz put that very question to Ruth when he woke in the middle of the night and found her sleeping at his feet (Ruth 3, 9). In the Acts of the Apostles, we read how Saul, after being struck to the ground on his way to Damascus, heard a voice of challenge: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” In response, Saul called out: “Who are you, sir?” The voice answered: “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting…(Acts 9, 3-5). All literature is a window onto life, viewed from the perspective of those who have written it. The Bible is an anthology of many different kinds of literature, written across a span of centuries. Jews and Christians believe the Bible is divinely inspired. Scholars, of course, are able to distinguish the differing styles of the various authors. In the New Testament we know that there are differing accounts of the same event in the life of Jesus, and there are even little contradictions. They simply reflect how we human beings tell stories, adding our own variations and embellishments.

Back in the 1970s, when I was studying in the USA, I attended a performance of a play written by the American dramatist, William Inge. It was called Picnic, and explores the lives of a group of neighbours from a small working-class town in Kansas. It is a melodrama which features a would-be beauty queen who has grown tired of just being “pretty”. She has a younger and more intelligent sister, who is struggling to come out from under her sister’s shadow. Then there’s a handsome stranger who has appeared from nowhere. He has an air of bravado and adventure, and is really looking for a new start in life. There’s also a single school-teacher, who is intent on convincing a local businessman to marry her, so she can escape from a life that seems to her to be going nowhere. All of these characters are constantly measuring themselves against what they think are the expectations of their neighbours and their inward-looking community and the expectations they have built for themselves. In the process of looking at the lives of these characters, Inge explores themes that touch the lives of all of us in one way or another. – life’s disappointments, repression, depression, sexuality and rites of passage.

“Who are you?” and “Who am I?” are questions we all ask and explore at some time, or, rather, times, in our lives. In today’s gospel-reading, we meet a man who, simply and deeply knows the answer to these questions. First, he knows who he isn’t. He knows, without doubt, that he isn’t the Messiah. Elijah or the Prophet. But, he is the one who will attest to the light, to Jesus, whose message will bring light to the world, – and nothing is going to distract him from that. We are reminded today that we, too, are meant to testify to the light by the way we live. By acting with compassion and justice and integrity and mercy and forgiveness, we bring hope and encouragement to our world which, as a result of Covid, is gripped by fear and uncertainty, doubt and distrust. We are not the Messiah, we are not Jesus, but by imitating the Baptist, by living what Jesus taught, we can bring light and hope to our sisters and brothers.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Second Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“A voice cries out: ‘In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low…then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all humankind shall see it together.’” Isaiah 40, 1-5, 9-11

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and on that day the heavens will vanish with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and all its deeds will be open to scrutiny…so do your best to be found living at your best in integrity, peace and holiness.” 2 Peter 3, 8-14

“John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of life-change, which leads to the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1, 1-8

There is a clear link between the three readings of this second Sunday of Advent. They are all apocalyptic in style as they refer to the end times or to dramatic changes in world history. Moreover, they offer a lesson in the use of metaphors, signalling that they are not to be taken literally. For example, any of us who have been bush-walking or mountain-climbing will be familiar with the fact that gorges and steep hills are obstacles for climbers and walkers, slowing progress. Mark’s Gospel opens with a quote from chapter 40 of Isaiah, and it’s that very same passage which we hear in today’s first reading.

Using the metaphors of valleys and hills, both Isaiah and Mark were alerting their audiences to the obstacles that all of us human beings can create for ourselves, and which end up stifling us or preventing us from living up to our full potential. Neither Isaiah nor Mark were calling people to line up and publicly list their personal sins and failings. The Greek word that the Baptist used for “repentance” was metanoia, meaning a change of heart or mind-set. At the start of Lent or the beginning of a new year, we’re all used to making resolutions to change behavioural attitudes and actions that we recognise as unworthy of us. But our words and good intentions have to be met with changes of heart and action. It’s called conversion or transformation. Both Isaiah and John the Baptist were pointing out to their people that the quality of their lives together, that their relationships with one another, could improve if only they could raise their sights and actually change their outlook on life, acting with care compassion, justice and selflessness.

The piece we read from Isaiah today is well over 2000 years old and was intended to offer comfort and hope to a people that had long been living in exile ever since the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians. What was left looked like the kind of devastation an apocalypse would leave behind. This theme is echoed in today’s second reading from Peter, which describes the day of the Lord or the end time as a moment when “the elements will melt away in the flames …and everything will be destroyed” (2 Peter 3, 10-11).

Isaiah was directing his words to a people who had lost everything and had been forced to live in exile in Babylon. Their nation had been obliterated, their king had been killed, their temple destroyed, and they were left wondering if they had a future. And Isaiah reached out to them with a message of hope, announcing that God still wanted them, even though they, themselves, had wiped their hands of God: “Take comfort, take comfort my people. I, your God still care for you. So, go out and tell this news to everyone”. Through Isaiah, God was proclaiming to the people that, even though things could not be worse, there would still be a tomorrow.

This message is very appropriate for the people of today’s world, as we try to come to terms with the devastation caused by a Covid virus that has claimed the lives of countless people and left those close to them in the depths of grief; and the devastation of civil strife that has created more refugees than our world has ever seen. We live in a world crying out for comfort and hope. That comfort and hope are to be found in the person of Jesus. As his followers, we cannot wave a magic wand to dispel the pain of those who are hurting, but we can be instruments of comfort and hope to those very same people. As we turn our attention in Advent to reliving the coming of God into our world in the person of Jesus, we are called to be hope and comfort to others by the way we live and engage with the hurting people around us, to reincarnate in action, the care, comfort and compassion that Jesus taught us. But that means shaking off some of our own complacency and self-interest.

Today’s gospel-reading is from the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the opening words of which are: “The good news of Jesus Christ begins here.” Then Mark immediately quotes Isaiah’s words about the arrival on the scene of John the Baptist: “Watch closely: I’m sending my preacher ahead of you: He’ll make the road smooth for you. Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight! (Isaiah 40, 3-5).

John the Baptist ushered in a new beginning in the story of God’s love for the world. That new beginning would be brought about through people, ourselves included, who would embrace a life-change, a conversion of mind and heart, demonstrated in action. The second reading from Peter announced that such a life-change would be evidenced in our “holiness” – that is, living with integrity and putting God at the centre of our lives.

If we dare to look honestly at the state of our world, doing as Pope Francis calls to look closely at the signs of our times, I suggest that we are living in a world that is dying and, at the same time, longing to be reborn, to embrace a new way of living that respects all people and is involved in caring for our common home. The challenge for each of us in Advent is to invest ourselves in bringing new life to ourselves and others as we live with integrity, justice, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and encouragement of others.

We still have the words of encouragement, comfort and hope proclaimed some 2500 years ago by Isaiah to a people who had lost everything, including hope. I wonder if, in 2000 years from now, there will be any record of what we have done to bring hope and comfort to our world, and to embrace authentic life-change for ourselves. Now, there’s a topic for vibrant discussion.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

First Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Be constantly on the watch! Stay awake! You do not know when the appointed time will come. It is like a man travelling abroad. He leaves home, placing his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he orders the man at the gate to watch out with a sharp eye. Look around you! You do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether at dusk, at midnight, when the cock crows or at early dawn. Do not let him come suddenly and catch you asleep”. Mark 13, 33-37

While I hesitate to talk in absolutes, I believe that near the top of the list of the most alert people are those who care for the very elderly and the mothers of new-born babies and young children. At the slightest indication of disturbance or unrest, these carers are wide-awake and on the ready to respond. It’s as though they have no concerns for their own needs and personal comfort. I want to suggest that that’s the kind of attentiveness and alertness that Jesus, in today’s gospel-reading, is urging all those who want to be his disciples to cultivate.

We’ve probably all heard variations of the story of children playing in the grounds of their parish primary school when, suddenly, their attention is caught by a figure dressed in unusual clothes, coming through the school gate. One of them suggests it is Jesus. So, they rush off to the school secretary’s office and announce that Jesus is coming across the school yard. The secretary peeps through the curtains, quickly agrees with the children and calls the Religious Education Co-ordinator out of her office. She, too, looks out the window and immediately gets on the phone and announces to the parish priest that Jesus is on his way to the school office. The parish priest rushes in through the back door of the office with his stole and car keys in his hand, tells everyone to look busy, and heads to the garage and his car to make a speedy get-away.
That story is a little like what we hear Jesus saying in today’s gospel reading: “Stay at you post, watching. You have no idea when the owner will be coming back, whether in the evening, at midnight, at cock-crow, or in the morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job.”

Being alert, awake and watchful is one of the key themes of this first Sunday of Advent.
Just under 50 years ago, Wes Seeliger, an Episcopalian priest published a book of reflections entitled One Inch from the Fence. In one of those reflections, he wrote:
“The waiting room at a hospital’s intensive care unit is unlike any other place in the world. And the people who wait there are bound together like no others anywhere. Family members and friends can’t do enough for each other. No one is proud, no one stands on ceremony or protocol. Petty disputes and hurts are nowhere to be found. The distinctions of race and class melt away. A person is father or spouse first; white, black, Asian second. The garbage man loves his wife as much as the university professor loves his – and everyone understands. Each person pulls for everyone else. A family’s good news gives joy and hope to everyone; the sadness and grief of a family’s loss is felt by everyone. In the intensive care waiting room, the world changes. Vanity and pretence vanish. The universe is focussed on the doctor’s next report. In that waiting room, we can’t help but face the fact that life is fragile and limited. In waiting for word of some improvement in our loved one’s condition, every moment of life becomes a gift. That waiting room is a place of hoping. It is a place of anticipating, of expecting. It is a place of Advent.”

Today’s readings remind us that our lives are rather like a waiting-room, where we are confronted with both the preciousness and the fragility of our own lives. We all know that our lives are also an experience of anticipating, expecting and hoping. Advent invites us to reflect on the importance of making the most of the present. – to be conscious of the importance of expressing our love and care and compassion and encouragement now. Not tomorrow or next week or next year. And now is the time to be present to God who is present to us in every moment of our lives, in every person we encounter and in every event of which each day is made. That’s something about which we have to repeatedly remind ourselves.

One of the things I have learned over the years about Scripture is that the writers seem to have chosen their words carefully. In today’s gospel-reading, Mark attributes to Jesus an exhortation to his disciples to be always attentive and alert, so that they are not caught out “when the master returns”. By way of example, he refers to some specific times, some of which are sleeping times for most people – “You have no idea when the owner will return, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning.” We are probably used to the fact that the writer of John’s Gospel often stated very precise times, identifying exactly when Jesus performed some of his miracles. That kind of precision is unusual in Mark’s Gospel. However, I suggest that the times quoted in today’s gospel-reading. – evening, midnight, cockcrow and morning. – are deliberately used by Mark to remind us that these were very significant times in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Evening was the time of Jesus’ farewell meal with his disciples; midnight was the time when Jesus poured his heart out to God in prayer, while his close friends fell asleep; cockcrow was the time that marked Peter’s infidelity and denial; early morning marked the time of buck-passing by the religious leaders, who handed Jesus over to be tried by Pilate, and early morning was also the time, several days later, when the women visited Jesus’ tomb and found it empty. These were all times at which those closest to Jesus were given a profound insight into who he was, and the place he claimed in their lives. Similarly, there are times in our lives that have the potential for enriching and developing our relationship with Jesus, and what it means to walk in his footsteps. But we have to be alert and awake to those moments and possibilities.

There is one final point worthy of our reflection in today’s readings. In the first reading, we hear Isaiah reprimanding God for staying hidden away for far too long. He laments that God has stayed out of sight for so long that the people have forgotten who God is and, as a result, have forgotten what it means to live and walk in God’s ways: “Because you have hidden yourself, God, we have transgressed; now, there is no one who calls on your name; for a long time now, you’ve paid no attention to us. It’s like you never knew us” (Isaiah 64, 1-9).
Bob Dylan once wrote a song called Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. It expresses the kind of frustration we’ve all felt at times, when our praying seems to have produced no results. We sometimes feel as though God is distant from us, that God is elusive. God has chosen all kinds of ways of coming into our lives. Once, in a stable on the edge of the tiny town of Bethlehem, in the person of the Christ child. But also, countless times every day in what happens around us and in the people we encounter. Even, somehow in our failures and betrayals. Advent calls us to be alert to these multiple visitations.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Solemnity of Christ the King – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then, all the nations will be arranged before him, and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep from goats, putting sheep to his right, goats to his left. Then the King will say to those on his right: ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom…And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed me…I was homeless and you gave me a room…I was sick and you stopped to visit…’” Matthew 25, 31-46

For over fifty years now, movie makers, fascinated with the end times, have produced an ongoing series of apocalyptic films. Some of us will remember movies like Armageddon, The Road, Apocalypse Now, and many more. Apocalyptic art and literature deal imaginatively with the end of the world, and put their focus on the dramatic, the spectacular and the frightening. Anyone who has visited the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican will know how that great 16th century artist, Michelangelo depicted the end of the world and the last judgement in graphically dramatic terms. The Bible, too, has its fair share of apocalyptic literature, and the readings of this last Sunday of the Church’s year give us a taste of the apocalyptic genre of writing.

In today’s first reading, Ezekiel offers a compassionate view of the end of the world, with God arriving as a good and caring shepherd reaching out in welcome to all of humanity gripped in fear. Referring to the Jewish religious leaders as shepherds who have neglected their sheep, Ezekiel presents God proclaiming: “Watch out! I’m coming down on the shepherds and taking my sheep back. They’re fired as shepherds of my sheep. No more shepherds who just feed themselves. I’ll rescue my sheep from their greed. They’re not going to feed off my sheep any longer! From now on, I myself am the shepherd” (Ezekiel 34, 10-11).

In the second reading from Corinthians, Paul echoes John’s theology that sees Jesus, in his death on the Cross, drawing the whole world into the life and love of God. In the end times, according to Paul (and John) we will all be gathered up into God.

The great Jesuit priest and palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin wrote in the same vein as Paul and John. In an essay he wrote in the 1930s, Teilhard commented: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire” (Teilhard de Chardin, “The Evolution of Chastity” p.86-87 1936, in Toward the Future). Teilhard believed that the whole of creation is gradually being drawn up into the energy of God. The end times will be when that drawing-up process reaches completion. There is none of the drama of apocalyptic writing here.

Matthew’s account of the end times and the last judgement carries the clear message that the choices we make in the process of living our lives will determine the shape of our end times. His writing resonates with the painting of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, but with less drama and spectacularism. Still, it is apocalyptic in style, and not to be taken literally. It has been presented by Matthew in the style of all the parables recorded in the previous six chapters of his Gospel. The clear message of today’s gospel-reading is that our being taken up into God will be assessed on our history of shepherding those who have been neglected or overlooked by their officially appointed shepherds.

How, then, is this gospel-reading appropriate for the celebration of Christ, the King? Historically, the solemnity of Christ the King was instituted by Pius XI between the two great world wars, at a time when national leaders were stressing their own importance, their insistence on their citizens showing loyalty, and their emphasis on the power invested in them. It was also a time when the Church’s status and influence, particularly in Europe, was in decline. The Pope set out to stress that the only king worthy of our unswerving loyalty and total allegiance is Jesus Christ, the Messiah and God’s anointed.

Paradoxically, during his life on earth, Jesus refused to have the title of king attributed to himself. He wanted nothing to do with power, pomp and circumstance. His leadership was manifested principally in service, especially service of the poor, the weak and the forgotten. While today’s readings from Ezekiel and Matthew present the end of the world in terms of a time of judgement, the emphasis is not on a judgement of condemnation. Rather it is on the challenge to us to live faithful to the message of Jesus, faithful as members of the flock he shepherds, and faithful shepherds of those who are entrusted to our care.

The proof of our allegiance to Jesus Christ as the one on whom our lives are centred and the message he proclaimed and lived is spelled out in detail in today’s gospel parable:

“Then the King will say to those on his right: ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s prepared for you in God’s kingdom. It has been ready and waiting for you since the world’s foundation, and here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room, shivering and you gave me
clothes, sick and you stopped to visit, in prison and you came to me.’”

It is crucial to our lives as disciples of Jesus that we recognise him present in all those whom we encounter, and reach out to them as he showed us. With each dawning day, we have to rediscover, reclaim or reignite the fire in our lives. How the world will end is of little or no importance. What is important is that we live and die with the fire of love and care in our hearts. In the meantime, we might care to reflect on Robert Frost’s poem, Fire and Ice:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

A good woman…is quick to assist anyone in need, reaches out to help the poor…When she speaks, she has something worthwhile to say, and she always say it in a kindly manner. Proverbs 31, 10-31

“The kingdom of God is like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities…The first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.” Matthew 25, 14-30

Today’s gospel-reading gives us yet another parable about the kingdom of God. To treat it as a parable only about how we use our talents is, I suggest, to over-simplify it. The gospel-reading is complemented by the two readings from Proverbs and Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians. Proverbs presents us with the description of a woman who is a model of fidelity, selflessness and sound, practical common sense. (At the same time, we have to be careful not to degrade women to the point of seeing them merely as having “worthy wife” status.) In writing to the Thessalonians, Paul urges them (and us) not to worry about the future but to focus their attention on how they are living in the present and why they are living the way they do. In the gospel parable we hear about two servants who have paid close attention to their master, listened to him, learned from him and then set about imitating him. We also hear of one fearful servant who has failed to learn from his master and has made no effort to take the risk of trying to imitate him. In failing to take any initiative, this servant stifled the gifts with which he had been blessed.

In-depth reflection on these readings leads us to look not only at our gifts but at how and why we use them the way we do. Moreover, it challenges us to look closely at all those people we encounter and how, and at their capacity to enrich the way we live our lives.

One of the real blessings for those of us who have been or are school-teachers is that we have the privilege of learning from those who have filled our classrooms. In fact, I am confident in stating that we have learned so much more from our students than we can claim to have taught them. Our classrooms have been filled with countless, gifted youngsters, every one of whom has enormous potential to do extraordinary things on any and every stage – from the research laboratory to the ballet stage, from the boardroom to the halls of government. This particular girl could be the founder of the next Google or Microsoft; that young lad may be the first to find a cure for cancer or alzheimer’s disease or motor-neurone disease. They are limited only by their imaginations and the opportunities to learn and to grow that will come their way.

Every single one of us – child or adult, teacher or student. – has been entrusted by God with skills, talents and imaginations to direct towards bettering the world to which we belong. The challenge, of course, is to find the openness to risk embracing the vulnerability needed to involve ourselves with other people, thereby risking failure, criticism and, even, ridicule. Today’s gospel-parable challenges us to steer clear of burying our talents in the safe ground of self-interest, of playing safe, but to direct them towards the service of others, especially those in need.

Yet again, however, we have to tread warily as we engage with this parable. While Jesus introduces it with the words “The kingdom of God is like a man going off on an extended trip”, we would be doing God and Jesus a disservice if we were to rush into equating them with the man who entrusted his three servants with large sums of money.

When the third servant calls his master “a hard man”, adding “You reap where you did not sow and gather where you did not scatter”, the master does not contradict him. Moreover, the master confirms his servant’s judgement, and even tells him he should have gone and sought bank interest – a practice which the Book of Leviticus (Ch. 25) recorded as questionable behaviour. The master in the parable is intent on getting richer and doesn’t seem to care about the methods employed by his slaves, only about the returns on investments they get for him. In telling this parable, Jesus, whose preference was clearly for the poor and under-privileged, would hardly be concerned about giving a lesson in venture capital or the practices of investing for profit.

Surely, this parable, while it is about the way in which we use, express and develop our gifts, is also about the way people are treated by those who employ them and invite them to exercise responsibility. The third servant ranks with those who are despised and mistreated. If we to get an accurate picture of the way in which Matthew sees God’s judgement of the peoples of the world, we need to look forward to the next section of this Chapter 25: “Then the King will say to those on his right: ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me’” (Matthew 25, 34-36). Like those just listed, the third servant belongs to those whom communities, societies and those with wealth and power are quick to throw away. Who are the people I am inclined to dismiss and disregard?

Finally, a story, from a magazine called The Christian Century, of the pastor of a small Christian community that numbered 200 adults. This little community had long provided accommodation for homeless people in a neglected part of Chicago. The need for such accommodation had finally disappeared, so the building was sold to a developer for $1.6 million. Shortly afterwards, the pastor delivered a homily on the parable of the talents, and then announced that each adult in the congregation would be given $500 as he or she left the church that morning: “The money is to be used however you choose, for God’s work in the world. You might well ask if this is unbelievably risky. My answer is ‘yes’. We are doing this because this is what it feels like to do business with God: risky and crazy and vulnerable, yet incredibly threatening and exciting at the same time.”

I suggest that this is worthy of discussion in our own homes and communities: What would you and I do with the $500, if we were members of that church community?

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection